Emily Pettigrew, "On Foot, First Settlement Cemetery" (2021), acrylic on panel (all images courtesy Monya Rowe Gallery, New York) 24 by 30 inches

Emily Pettigrew and Aubrey Levinthal, whose work I have previously reviewed, have a number of things in common: both of them paint young women alone and use color and atmospheric light to infuse their depictions with a particular emotional weather. Another crucial thing they share is their rejection of overt narrative in favor of interiority and opacity. But, as much as they overlap, the differences between them run deeper and are more telling. Currently, their paintings are paired in the exhibition Odd Hours: Aubrey Levinthal and Emily Pettigrew at Monya Rowe Gallery (June 24–July 22, 2021).

Pettigrew, who is often inspired by history, fiction, and the news, is interested in women singly and in groups. In her earlier work, she depicted different views of a group of Irish nuns and scenes from the life of a preadolescent Japanese girl who, in 2004, slashed a schoolmate’s throat with a box cutter in the “Sasebo slashing.” 

A tonalist painter who utilizes a restrained palette of closely related colors to establish a mood, Pettigrew paints uninflected, solid shapes in acrylic. Her paintings have flat areas in common with Alex Katz and Will Barnet.  

Installation view, Odd Hours: Aubrey Levinthal & Emily Pettigrew at Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

It is lightly snowing in “On Foot, First Settlement Cemetery” (2021). A dark brown, snow-covered post-and-rail fence angles in diagonally from the painting’s lower left edge. The corner post marks the painting’s central axis; behind it the fence slopes down a hill into the distance. The wood fence presumably encloses the unnamed state’s oldest or first-settlement cemetery. However, we do not see any gravestones, only the fencing. On the painting’s right side, a young Asian woman in a long, dark brown coat, tan mittens, green dress, and brown tights walks through the snow, a determined look on her face. The sky and field are pale celadon. 

The painting’s title suggests that Pettigrew’s juxtaposition of a cemetery fence and a young Asian woman recognizes the change in America’s demographics from its first settlers to recent arrivals. And yet, this reading, based on the title, is not indicated by anything seen in the painting. The pale green pallor of the sky and snowy landscape contribute to the somber mood, while the snow underscores the woman’s struggle. The tonally austere palette infuses the painting with a current of understated drama. 

Adjacent to Pettigrew’s painting is Levinthal’s oil on panel “Groceries” (2021). We see a seated woman with reddish-brown skin in profile. Her hand is flat against the side of her face, obscuring most of it. She is lost in thought, and pressed close to the picture plane, with a long, gray table stretching back behind her. On the table’s far end, in line with the woman’s forehead, Levinthal has depicted a cluster of white plastic shopping bags. This compression of near and far is given a further twist by the woman’s pink shirt, which is decorated with rows of single eyes with black pupils. An ordinary situation of a woman who has put the groceries on a table and sat down becomes extraordinary and mysterious. 

Aubrey Levinthal, “Blue Night” (2020), oil on panel, 48 by 36 inches, plus artist frame

Levinthal’s attention to details within compressed spaces is what makes her work sing. In “By the Pool” (2021), a woman’s face rises above the painting’s bottom edge. She is seated in front of an empty pool, a few water toys floating on its placid cerulean blue surface. What jumps out is the woman’s hand, with its bright red fingernails pointing down and grazing the bottom edge of the canvas, in this largely blue, moody painting. 

Whereas Pettigrew lays down a solid skin of acrylic paint, Levinthal applies layers of thin, semi-transparent washes, which she often scrapes down with a razor, giving her work a worn look — which can be read as a barometer of the subject’s feelings and thoughts. At the same time, while Levinthal paints herself, her family, and her friends, Pettigrew depicts a number of women whose faces we cannot see, as they are turned away from us, or she hones in on a detail, such as woman’s arm and hand. 

By employing such devices as paint color and materiality, cropping (which may be inspired by film), and the definition of a three-dimensional space, Pettigrew and Levinthal remind us that the most well-worn pictorial possibilities can still be used to arrive at genuine states of feeling as well as challenge clichés about the depiction of women and people of different races. 

Installation view, Odd Hours: Aubrey Levinthal & Emily Pettigrew at Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

In “October Day, Stonington Harbor” (2020), Pettigrew depicts a young Asian woman’s head and shoulders rising from the painting’s bottom edge, slightly left of center. Behind her, on the right, we see the upper stories of a house with a peaked roof. Between the woman and house is the harbor, where a few boats, with no visible passengers, drift. What I find striking about this painting, with its restrained tonal palette, is the juxtaposition of the figure and the landscape, which is of the Maine coastline and Atlantic Ocean. How often have many of us seen scenes of a figure posed in front of a harbor? And then consider how many times that figure has been a young Asian woman. I like looking at this painting, which seems to have no overt message. 

I think the strongest bond between these two otherwise very different artists comes from the gap between what we are used to seeing and what Pettigrew and Levinthal depict. In their work, they show us views that ask viewers to stop and contemplate what they are seeing and that they might not have actually seen it before.  

Odd Hours: Aubrey Levinthal and Emily Pettigrew continues at Monya Rowe Gallery (224 West 30th Street, #1005, Manhattan) through July 22.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...