LES Gallery tour last week left me dispirited.
Post hiatus and after experiencing some but not all (thank god!) of the effects of the Covid Era, I want more. Most of the paintings seemed remote, decorative or just a series of effects.
A painter friend upstate for the summer asked me what I’d seen and I said the above.
She said that she tries to discount her own opinions and ego and simply to try to stay with what the artist is presenting to her, keeping in mind that what doesn’t touch her now may simply be new and unfamiliar. She might be rejecting the work out of hand for that reason and later when she’s had time to consider, it might become important to her.
I’ve had that exact experience in the last month. I tried Outline by Rachel Cusk last year and after 30 pages completely rejected it. It seemed cold and clinical—I even sold it back to Unnameable Books. Then after a good friend said she was reading every Cusk in a mad rush, I tried again; I bought The Country Life. In the first days of reading it, I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. Now I’m on the last book of the trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) and I’m already planning to read it again. What I found cold and clinical now seems to me a masterpiece of observation, listening and storytelling.
But does this mean I should have withheld judgment? Not been repelled at first and not expressed it? My friend Sophie did not even disagree with me about Cusk, she simply said “Yes but.”
LUI SHTINI “Ruminations” May 12–June 13, 2021, James Fuentes
Shtini’s work is full of effects seemingly for their own sake. Tropological memes, textures, just-okay trompe l’oeil, hard taped edges, and indications of dimensional form contradicted by graphic elements. Tender Touch, for example, is a loosely painted bandaged body form—the surface is studded with flattening buttons. He seems to be constantly saying, “ Look how I can casually manipulate your emotions and perceptions.”
I would also add that I recognize quotes from here and there that diminish the source. Is Nerves Francis Bacon’s baboon trivialized? In another work, some graphic teeth also recall the screaming popes.
Would I like the paintings better if the artist’s statement referred to what I see in the paintings? Probably yes in this case and many others. I would feel more respect.
SUE COE May 6-June 6, 2021, James Fuentes Essex
I first saw Coe’s paintings in the 80s when they were painted. It was the first time (of many) when it became impossible to say I didn’t like them because in this case that would mean—of course!—that I approve of police brutality. A few years later, looking at a collage of test tubes and bloody bandages, I said, “This is awful” and a friend asked, “Aren’t you against AIDS?”
Looking at them now, I still don’t like them. (So shoot me.) I’m not even sure that these paintings are actually political. Coe comes across as a preacher of hellfire, we are all damned. Insofar as there is pleasure in that, I much prefer the visually ingenious graphic work.
NATALIE WHITE “The Bleach Paintings” May 20-July 11, 2021, Freight and Volume
If you’ve never seen the effect of Clorox on colored fabrics, these might be interesting to you. White is an activist and performer—an interesting artist in other ways. During lockdown, she wanted to be creative and hit upon the idea of bleach and sheets because of the lack of other materials. In an interview with WWD, White states, “This all came from my subconscious.” To anyone familiar with contemporary art, the motifs that she uses will seem to be appropriated.
EJ HAUSER “Voyagers” April 9-May 29, 2021, Derek Eller
To my eye there are a few good paintings here. The Listeners (see above) and Forever Blue are among them. They both operate on two levels of perception. In The Listeners the drawing of the black birds dominates, seemingly very fluid but really composed of pixelated marks. Then the brightly colored ground starts to become auras and shadows of other birds and the two images begin to flow around each other. From the press release EJ Hauser wrote:
“It is my wish that these talismanic sails, flood the gallery with vibrant optimism.”
Strangely worded and punctuated, but I like the sentiment and The Listeners came through with the optimism.
Forever Blue is very simple, basically one monochromatic drawing overlaying another, but here too they register separately and each becomes sequentially dimensional. I’m very interested in this idea myself which I first noticed in a Burchfield painting: the ink drawing and the watercolor were separate but interacting.
It took a while to see these paintings because so much of this show was cute and decorative: poodles and lions and asses, oh my. Which is not to say I don’t like the purely decorative, I do, but not so much in the form of a painting.
BOBBIE OLIVER “By the River” May 20 – June 27, 2021, High Noon
These paintings are large, soft-focus, harmonic and the artist invites a zen-like contemplation that I was unable to give. Perhaps if I had seen only a single painting in an otherwise darkened room or was in a different mood or a different kind of person or if there was a bench.
Also perhaps because there is so much abstract figurative work going around I was distracted by other images like the ethereal skeleton I saw running down the center of Green Detour.
I do love the Delaware River that the paintings are based on and have spent many hours contemplating it. It is admirable and ambitious to try to evoke a river—and terribly difficult.
In this selection from Cusk’s Kudos, the protagonist, a writer at a conference, meets a journalist who is supposed to interview her, but instead he does all the talking which she simply describes without prejudice:
“Friends had advised him if he wanted to make it as a creative writer, he should stop savaging other people’s work, but you might as well ask a bird not to fly or a cat not to hunt; and besides, what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free? And that was without even mentioning the moral duty of the critic to correct the tendency of culture likewise to err towards safety and mediocrity, a responsibility you couldn’t measure in dinner invitations.”
At the end of the time allotted for the interview, he’s never gotten around to asking her a single question. What a beautiful and witty writer she is.
Below there are links to the press releases, if you would like to read how the artists present themselves in their own words. If you would like to disagree or agree with anything I have said, please write here.
Sue Coe at James Fuentes Essex
Natalie White at Freight and Volume