The Graham gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has an edifying show titled Against Nature: Hard Edge Abstraction. The exhibition features more than 30 artworks by 20 different artists, including Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring, Paul Reed, Sir Terry Frost, and Charles Green Shaw. The aim of Against Nature is to pair historical works of geometric abstraction alongside new works by recent upstarts. It encourages us to entertain several questions about abstract painting today: What are contemporary abstractionists holding onto? What are they leaving behind? And where are they going?
The artwork, according to the exhibition statement, “embraces a formulaic approach to painting characterized by meticulously arranged, spatially compressed compositions meant to supplant the perceived spontaneity of gestural painting.” If this statement makes the show sound scholarly, that’s because it is.
How to brush off the stifling classroom vibe? Include the bright new work of painter Corydon Cowansage. Craig Poor Monteith, the Associate Director of Contemporary Art at Graham, credits Harbor Gallery at 1717 Troutman in Ridgewood for introducing him to Cowansage.
Like sugar, Cowansage’s paintings have an addictive hold. Her vibrant, candy-colored paintings are a celebration of light and color. They caught me hook, line, and sinker. (Her use of color is comparable to Paul Reed’s heavily saturated canvasses.) If I had to pick one word to describe Cowansage’s pieces, it would be invigorating. I can only liken the experience of seeing her work to the opening of a bedroom window on the first day of spring after a long, cold gray winter.
At first glance, a crimson grid set against a pink field is apparent. Both vertical and horizontal lines appear to advance and recede willy-nilly. But on closer inspection, what I thought was a nonreferential, objective investigation of geometric shapes turned out to be an extreme close-up of a fence. My realization did not diminish my enjoyment of her painting. Her paint handling is nonchalant — not slapdash. To see Corydon’s work alongside that of her elder counterparts makes theirs appear anal-retentive, even suffocating.
That said, there is one elder statesman who does not appear stuffy next to Cowansage: Sir Terry Frost. Born in 1915 in Warwickshire, England, Frost has an exuberant sense of color and a light touch. In his giant painting titled 1971, he arranges a collection of vibrant semi-circles against fields of pure color. To my eye, the painting resembles an Easter basket filled with pastel-wrapped chocolates. Like Cowansage, Frost’s paint handling is straightforward without being fussy.
What I would love to see next is a two-person show featuring Frost and Cowansage, a cross-generational meeting of kindred spirits. Graham, what do you think?
Against Nature: Hard Edge Abstraction at Graham Gallery (32 East 67th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) is on view through October 12.