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One of the most interesting and least discussed anomalies in art is the painter who masters two completely different languages, such as figuration and abstraction. There are obvious cases, for instance Willem de Kooning, but what about artists such as Avigdor Arikha, Jean Hélion, and Rodrigo Moynihan? These were all successful abstract artists who grew disenchanted with abstraction and transformed themselves into compelling figurative artists. In fact, Hélion and Moynihan went through at least three distinct phases in their careers, moving between realism and abstraction.
What I find wonderful about these artists is that the different periods of their work don’t fit together; this ought to remind us that our lives don’t necessarily add up or make sense either.
When Arikha, Hélion, and Moynihan shifted from abstraction to figuration, their primary subject became everyday life and the things in it, from chairs and musical instruments to loaves of bread and light bulbs. Stephen Pusey has gone in the opposite direction.
Born in 1952 and raised in estate housing in South London, Pusey attended St. Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins). He first gained attention in 1977 for his murals in the South London communities of Covent Garden and Brixton. Between 1977 and ’82, he completed a number of large murals, including “Children at Play,” which was 30 feet high and 100 feet long, in Brixton, shortly after the 1981 Brixton Riots.
In 1986, after being invited to exhibit his work at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, Pusey emigrated to the US and settled in the city, where he began another journey in his work. While I cannot detail everything that he did between his arrival in New York and the first years of this century, suffice to say that by 2003 he had become an abstract artist whose painting style extended from the all-over linear abstractions that we generally associate with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Mark Tobey’s “white writing.” Like the three artists I mentioned earlier, he fully reinvented himself.
This is how Pusey characterizes his abstract paintings in “Some Notes About the Work,” which he posted on his website:
The works are constructed of a matrix of calligraphic gestures, which appear to flow in and out of space. I work without hesitation and autonomically. It is a process in which imagination, the subconscious, and critical judgment work in tandem.
There is something lovely, stubborn, challenging, and particular about an artist who paints large calligraphic abstractions in middle age, and in the first decades of the 21st century.
Done in acrylic, and using different narrow brushes, Pusey patiently fills the surface of the canvas with swirling, rhythmic layers of lines, resulting in a dense network of swaying and turning brushstrokes. In his choice of colors, he seems interested in a mixture of tonal shifts and clear contrasts. The title of an early painting, “Spilling Genesis” (acrylic on canvas, 76 x 115 inches, 2004), suggests that he is starting from scratch, beginning with a line drawn on a monochromatic surface. Rather than having a goal in mind, the point is to have this line meander across the surface, to discover what kinds of mark can be recorded.
Pusey first got my attention in 2019 when he posted images on his Facebook page of a group of five murals, collectively titled Dragon Song, that were commissioned for an oil depot in Seoul that had been converted into a public park. The paintings, which he did on site in cold weather, had to be completed within a short period of time.
In a film, Stephen Pusey – Dragon Song, which was posted on YouTube in April 2020, the artist is shown working on and talking about the project. I was struck by the connection he made between an Irish origin story and the significance of the dragon in many Asian belief systems, as well as the associations the paintings prompted.
His debut exhibition at David Richard Gallery, Stephen Pusey: Strange Attractors (January 27 – February 19, 2021), includes 11 paintings done during the COVID-19 lockdown as well as three each from 2017, 2018, and 2019. Together, the 20 paintings amount to a mini-survey that was augmented in my mind by the film of Pusey working on his Seoul mural.
The biggest difference between the works in the exhibition and the all-over, linear abstractions that he started making around 2003 is that the brushstrokes have grown varied in width and density. In the recent paintings, Pusey’s calligraphic gestures sit between abstraction and figuration.
Also in contrast to the earlier paintings, whose dense layering of swirling lines are likely to be associated with digital networks and communications, the recent works call to mind graffiti and tagging, palimpsests of walls in city neighborhoods. There is no dripping and Pusey does not seem to be using a loaded brush. In fact, some of the marks seem to have been made with a dry brush.
At times he approaches cartoon-like abstract forms, but he never crosses over into the territory of artists such as Kenny Scharf. To his credit, Pusey seems to have no interest in making work that is an entertaining trifle evoking a mindless happiness.
What distinguishes Pusey’s calligraphy from urban graffiti is his deft manipulation of paint’s viscosity, the range of densities he gets in his marks, and well as a layering of forms that never quite obliterates or fully covers over what preceded it.
Beginning with a dark ground to which he adds successive layers of calligraphic marks in dirty pinks, electric greens, pale lilacs, and blues accented with white, as he does in “Voyager” (acrylic on canvas, 42 x 66 inches, 2020), Pusey constantly courts a chaotic mélange of marks but never descends into it. Rather, he respects each of the gestures he makes enough not to destroy them.
Pusey’s cursive marks sit in that zone where writing becomes drawing and vice versa. Though they allude to Pollock and Tobey, it is in a way that does not mimic them.
It has become commonplace to think that Pollock, as Allan Kaprow claimed, destroyed painting, or that he brought an end to drawing in paint, as others have stated. Pusey’s abstract paintings prove these declarations to be premature. By attaining a calligraphic abstraction that is recognizably his, Pusey reminds us that painting — however contested it might be — remains an open field.
Stephen Pusey: Strange Attractors continues at David Richard Gallery (211 East 121st Street, Manhattan) through February 19.
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