At some point, while sitting in Melissa Meyer’s studio, and talking about artists and shows that we admired, such as the calligraphic paintings of Bradley Walker Tomlin, we discovered that we had both been moved by Jean Dubuffet, The Last Years, the opening exhibition of the newly renovated Jeu de Palme, Paris, in 1991. In his last paintings — which were also recently featured in the Pace exhibition, Jean Dubuffet: The Last Two Years (January 20–March 10, 2012) — Dubuffet stopped depicting figures segmented into black-outline shapes, and started painting free-floating colors and forms with a new freedom.
This was why I had come to Meyer’s studio. Over the past decade, Meyer, rightfully characterized by David Cohen “as virtually without a peer as a lyrical abstractionist,” moved from the lyrical to the disjunctive. She literally gave up what she knew how to do so well, which was to loop thick, juicy brushstrokes of oil paint slowly and elegantly — like a brightly dressed ice skater — across a canvas surface. I first wrote about this change in her work in The Brooklyn Rail (March 2009) and wanted to follow up. I was not disappointed.
In order to effect this change, which transpired between 2001 and 2003, Meyer made a number of decisions, all of which impacted her practice. She began making watercolors, which led her to thin her oil paint to a more liquid consistency. This was followed by a commission for two huge murals (one is forty feet high and the other is sixty feet long) for the Shiodome City Center in Tokyo, which led Meyer to begin using Photoshop as a compositional aid.
Literally speaking, the commission got her to think about breaking up the field across which her lush brushstrokes once unfurled unimpeded. While working on the commission she became interested in discontinuity, perhaps because she knew that a brushstroke that moved unbroken across a sixty foot surface would be the wrong kind of supreme fiction as well as a denial of her own physical engagement with the medium.
In her recent work Meyer initially creates a patchwork ground of different-sized rectangles: white, pale yellow, pink, green and cantaloupe-colored. Using these grounds as bordered areas — the opposite of Dubuffet — Meyer draws linear glyphs, usually in darker colors than the grounds. The line may exceed the ground’s borders, but never by very much.
Using oil paint diluted to the consistency of watercolor (or dirty turpentine) requires that Meyer lay the painting flat on the ground. Otherwise, the paint would drip and run, which the artist clearly doesn’t want. In 2009, when I reviewed her show at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., where she will open an exhibition of these new paintings next month (January 9–February 15, 2014), the yellows in the ground were brighter, sharper and sunnier. In the new work, the grounds are paler and — more importantly — she has moved from mere cacophony to courting the anarchic.
In “Inky” (2013), the ground’s rectangles are abutted together; its irregular, patchwork grid consists of pale yellows and cantalope, yellow-greens, and pale greens. Over this she has drawn with brushes of varying widths. The lines range from translucent gray to deep violet, from dry to wet, and from thin to relatively thick. Some lines bleed. There are sharp angles and rounded curves — triangles, circles and rectangles. You have to pick them out. While “Inky” is all of a piece, it doesn’t add up to an over-all pattern or pictorial image. Each part calls for attention, presses one to look more closely.
In “Inky” and other recent works in the studio, looking becomes an act of registering distinctions, ruptures, and changes of different kinds, each of which imbues a line with a particular identity. No two are alike, however similar they might initially appear.
The strength of Meyer’s recent paintings is that no matter what associations they stir up — and there are many — they don’t become diluted in the looking, don’t become abstractions of something else, a landscape or a building’s facade, for example. I think this is the hardest and most elusive place for art of any kind to occupy — the place that resists characterization and naming, the literal. It is — in the current situation — that not well-regarded place Walter Pater pointed to when he wrote, “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” I don’t believe Pater meant that art should be elitist or pure; rather, he was opposed to both the symbolic and literal — anything content to occupy the realm of discursive explication — which in this day and age ranges from the kitschy to the theoretical.
At the same time, I was reminded that Meyer lived for many years in Tribeca, and that her place was on the sixth floor, facing the World Trade Center. She could see the twin towers from her front hall and, as she later told me, saw the second plane go over her building. I don’t think 9/11 was foremost in her mind when she painted “Inky” and other works, but I also don’t think it was something she suppressed or forgot. One could make a connection between the destruction of the towers and her recent paintings, but that would be reductive and rather simplistic. Still, the association, however faint, is there. And it is that faintness, that smoldering awareness that lurks in our thoughts — like a spark waiting to bloom — which I find so powerful. None of us are ever that far away from the nothingness that awaits us all.
In her earlier work, the viewer could visually and viscerally grasp Meyer’s desire for the sensual and the lucid, for optimism and light. During the last decade, she has crossed a threshold. The calligraphic glyphs are a visual stammer poised on the edge of, but never sliding into, the inchoate.
Meyer’s paintings are meditations on mortality. Rather than offering solace or transcendence, they inform us that change and disintegration are all that stand between us and what we call “infinity.” This is the beauty and pain that Meyer has gotten in her work. It is further proof why abstract art remains powerful.