6.16.17 — Beyond the Horizon

Summer brings New Yorkers outdoors—and early summer in the galleries brings the outdoors in. Sometimes it seems that abstract art can encompass anything, but sometimes, too, it is rooted in landscape. Francisco Ugarte brings the outside in ingeniously, with a single brushstroke, at Cristin Tierney through July 7. It may be only the illusion of a brushstroke, but then it is only the illusion of a landscape as well. Ugarte restricts himself to the mark of a loaded brush, like a simpler David Reed, dragged across the center of an empty field—and then he recreates or reimagines the mark, painstakingly, on paper or canvas. The black acrylic gathers and scatters, while also drawing thin and leaving the fainter lines of individual bristles.

Patricia Treib's Ensemble (Bureau, 2016)This art is determinedly abstract, but a video makes it hard to ignore the resemblance to a horizon line or the texture of rock and soil. It shows hills going nowhere fast, perhaps near his native Guadalajara, as the backdrop to a whiter and more inscrutable plain, while a car crosses much like his brush. Past work has used paint tubes and shadows to conjure up model cities and foil-wrapped furniture to bring the discomforts of an arid landscape indoors, but here things stay plainer. Ugarte subtitles each work Brushstroke. And then he calls the show “Three Lines, One Square” to insist that he is only painting lines. As for the square, I never found it, but (like the brushstroke) it may have broken up some time before.

Shara Hughes is more summery and a lot less summary, at Rachel Uffner through June 25. It takes a whole show to discover the abstraction in her abstract landscapes or studio interiors. Her all-over painting looks representational enough, like Pierre Bonnard on steroids. The sheer density of dabs puts vegetation at its center. Some images, though, become harder to make out, apart from exercises in mostly primary colors. Taken together, as in 2017 Whitney Biennial or an earlier show of “Post-Analog Painting,” they become a compendium of approaches to making a painting.

Patricia Treib is cleaner, at Bureau through June 18, but the compendium is there all the same. She combines firm edges with looser strokes to deepen her warm colors. Although their flatness may recall Henri Matisse and his cutouts, they go well beyond primaries to include browns and purplish blues. She also gives her color fields plenty of room to breathe. Their curves may overlap, or they may nestle up against one another without touching. The show’s very title calls attention to the “Interstices.”

That leaves the emphasis on the shapes. They may seem abstracted away from a profile or the dowels of old furniture, and the domesticity lends them a greater calm. And then the wiggles keep things moving again. One might even interpret a shape here and there as a large Greek letter. Pattern and Decoration, Pop Art, folk art, color-field painting, expressionism—none of the labels seems quite right. That is much of what makes the paintings interesting.

All these artists belong to the revival of abstraction, but without the formulaic scale and brushwork of “zombie formalism.” Treib especially messes things up. They also offer an alternative to the frequent invasion of the human figure into abstraction. They can still have even diehard fans of abstract painting like me wondering. As I have to keep asking myself, when anything goes, where is painting going? For now, it is happily preoccupied with itself.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

5.24.17 — To Extremes

Janet Biggs and Regina José Galindo are not making documentaries, at Cristin Tierney through May 27. Their videos stop just short of horrific violence, and the barriers that appear are of their own making. They do not flinch at real-world terrors all the same.

Janet Biggs's Can't Find My Way Home (Cristin Tierney gallery, 2015)Both go to the Third World and to dangerous extremes, and their subjects know the dangers as a way of life. Biggs opens with a forbidding landscape in the Horn of Africa, Galindo with a verdant one in Guatemala. And both end with faces caught between a quiet dignity and fear.

Biggs has gone to extremes before, and the journey was personal. Her last solo show took her through a mine shaft and into a laboratory, with her body and her mind the subject of experiment. Talk about depth psychology. Here she takes herself out of the picture. She titles the video Afar, as if to attest to its remote setting or the challenge of keeping it at a distance. It refers, though, to a nomadic people that face political barriers to their movements and to survival.

She opens with volcanic crags and the steam that they release into a dark sky. The scene shifts to stark but often gorgeous open territory, where salt traders and the camels that they use as pack animals carry the story forward with a slow but seemingly inexorable rhythm. They till harsh ground with the barest of tools and seek a rest in the company of one another and tobacco. Steel gates interrupt now and then with other men and women, white men and women, glimpsed from behind, as if unable to leave or to enter, or passing in front, like guards for unseen prisoners. In time a cello, scored by William Martina, adds its poignancy to the ambient sound, but it must compete with the sound of those very people flinging themselves against the gates. The pulse is almost as unnerving as the image.

Those westerners are dancers, the company of Elizabeth Streb, in a video with no easy triumphs and no simple victims. Biggs called her last show Can’t Find My Way Home, and here the white dancers get no rest and the Africans have no home. By the end, the video returns to the crags and the volcanic activity within. It looks like cauldrons, with no miners or devils to tend to them. A young African appears on all three channels, from slightly different angles that add to the sense of unrest. And then the frames freeze on his uneasy glance.

Galindo ends with a close-up, too, but of herself rather than her implicit subject. One could almost call her 2013 video Regarding the Pain of Others, after Susan Sontag, but without Sontag’s skepticism about getting past the satisfaction of looking down on suffering. Its real title, Tierra, identifies it instead with the land in the aftermath of a refugee crisis and mass murder. Viewers entering in the middle will see Galindo’s naked body standing on a grassy knoll stained by soil and surrounded by a pit. Who put her there? No one, for it started as flat ground, before an earth mover began to dig.

It sets to work completing and deepening her isolation, with only the lighter skin of her breasts and belly as body armor. At times its shovel pauses just over her head, leaving one in hope of a respite and fearful for the threat—and then the rig shifts position, and the shoveling begins again. With the circle completed, it turns to narrowing her perch, while the trees behind her shake. Will it sweep her up or knock her over into the pit? Will it bury her alive or leave her with nowhere to go? The uncertainty becomes excruciating over the course of more than half an hour, and then you, too, will have to find your way home.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.