8.21.17 — The Secret Gardens

Do people leave town in summer to get closer to nature? On a Wednesday evening in July, several galleries on the Lower East Side joined together with much the same aim, as a way to get people back to the city—and I have added this to an earlier recap of 2017 summer group shows, to fill out the picture. As you will see in a moment, I also take you to another chance to get back to the garden this summer, at Wave Hill.

In truth, not all the galleries in “Gardens on Orchard” stuck to its theme. I have already included McKenzie in that wrap-up of 2017 summer group shows for its abstraction. Visitors, though, reveled in summer’s lushness. I soon enough lost track of the number and even identity of the artists.

Lesley Heller, through August 18, opens with a sly promise of a wider meadow in Astroturf, which Jim Osman sets in painted boxes reminiscent of modern design from the Bauhaus to Memphis. Katherine Newbegin hints at the promise betrayed, with her photo of an empty swimming pool. In between come strategies of painting, often on the verge of Op Art, sci-fi fantasy, or “pattern and decoration,” but with the fiercer creatures of Judith Linhares invading the garden. KK Kozik leaves nature to the illusion of color postcards pinned to a bookcase in black and white, but all is well—even with nature pierced by a highway or seemingly on fire. Not quite on Orchard Street, Freight + Volume has a still greater abundance, through September 8, as “The Secret Life of Plants.” Its secrets range from the Postmodernism of Neil Welliver and Ross Bleckner to the dreamlike contemporary states of mind of JJ Manford, David Humphrey, Benjamin King, Alexis Rockman, Cristina de Miguel, H. Peik Larsen, and Emily Noelle Lambert.

Back on Orchard, Pablo’s Birthday returned to nature by returning as well to its very last show. Nik Christensen, through June 18, had not made nature easy to find. His canvases look almost like vintage TV screens on the fritz, only in a vertical format and on the scale of a wide screen today. On the gallery’s second floor, through July 30, they once again accumulate black, white, and gray in diamonds instead of pixels—and in an unexpected variety of scales. The pleasure comes in tracking them, as the image accumulates, clarifies, and once again dissolves. If I am not mistaken, they belong to forest scenes with people at their center but not altogether at home.

One of Heller’s artists, Elisabeth Condon, also helps bring nature to Wave Hill, which amounts to overkill all by itself. A private park in Riverdale, in the Bronx, it offers carefully tended lawns and sometimes elusive, sometimes dramatic views of the Hudson and the cliffs of the Palisades beyond. At its heart, though, are gardens, flowering trees, and the Glyndor Gallery for art. This year all three collude on a mix of native and exotic species, through August 27, as “Flora Fantastica!” One can almost excuse the exclamation point, because the flora look less fantastical than running wild. In the tradition of Flemish and Dutch still-life, the artists also bring one close enough to touch.

Jill Parisi does so literally, although touching is verboten, with paper and tissue flowers. Her hand-colored intaglio and digital prints burst into color and three dimensions. Nancy Blum lets flowers grow larger than life in ink, colored pencil, gouache, and graphite. They bring a fine line out of old botanical studies and seductive fantasies. Like both artists, Amy Cheng combines species in a single flower, with patterning in oil that leaves the edge of the canvas to break its intricate symmetry. Condon does sketch what she sees on the spot, in black ink, but she also thrives on the contrast of flowing ink and more detailed acrylic.

Not part of the show, Jan Mun has a talking plant in the sun rooms, where the speaker expounds on the parallels between Western imperialism and invasive species. It could be the reincarnation of Mr. Ed as a politically correct vegetable. David Rios Ferreira has flowers, too, covering the window panes, but also images from children’s books and housing projects. They invoke the actual environment for the Bronx kids with whom he collaborates. So is art about gardens in summer a natural, superfluous, or a confusion of the imagination and real life? The puzzle has a long history in representation, and it is not going away any summer soon.

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

4.21.17 — Hard to Choose

The revival of painting has a serious down side: it becomes hard to choose. When anything goes, who is to say what matters? How can any artist leave a signature, when the very idea of authenticity has taken a decades long beating?

Still, the sheer lack of firm directions allows abstraction to cross boundaries in genres and media—and critics like me to make guilty choices. Call everything out there derivative art if you like, but then it has plenty to draw on, or call it “zombie formalism,” but then the dead can walk again. Stephen Maine's P15-0720 (Hionas gallery, 2015)

Two years back, Jackie Saccoccio and Stephen Maine offered a study in contrasts in all-over painting. And Saccoccio still invites comparison to Jackson Pollock, at 11R through April 30, but her canvas has come more and more off the floor. It also combines oil and mica, with small strokes that approach circuit diagrams in their fixity, brushed onto larger splashes of color. She also turns to paper on much the same scale, in what is hard not to call painting. Gouache and ink spill into one another, for a continued play of fluidity and line. Both series make ample use of the ground, whether the weave of canvas or the white of paper.

Maine still pursues a kind of relief printmaking, at Hionas through April 30, with plates the size of canvas and with all sorts of materials in place of wood. They leave quite an impression, with cracks and ripples in their acrylic layers. They also push more determinedly than ever to the edge of the canvas. Speaking of a printer’s blocks, does Sean Scully in his seventies still make oil look like brickwork? Now his work admits as much, with “Wall of Light Cubed” at Cheim & Read through May 20. Some paintings depart from two dimensions through illusion, adding angled planes to the edge of his gridded rectangles, while sculpture takes the stacked colors into the center of a room.

Like Saccoccio, Michael Rouillard works between line and color—and, like Scully, between Minimalism and illusion. His paintings depart from white only with slim verticals and horizontals that cross at regular intervals, sometimes with thinner and darker lines at their center becoming darker still where they meet. Together, they transform the gallery walls into layers of white, at Pablo’s Birthday through April 23. He has also been drawing on paper torn from spiral notebooks until they fill the sheet with a near uniform blackness, much as Callum Innes uses small gestures to create simple monochromes at Sean Kelly through April 29. The torn edges serve as drawing, while the drawing serves as painting and the long row of sheets as installation. After twenty-four years and one hundred sheets, he may finally be calling it a wrap.

Erin O’Keefe looks back to an earlier Modernism, at Denny through May 14. Overlapping planes have the jagged or curved edges of the transition to abstraction in Fernand Léger and Francis Picabia. They do not, though, look at all like bodies in motion. Rather, they sit still for good reason: a lighter touch and greater gradation of tone allows the planes to concentrate light. The effect is all the more striking in two paintings that stick to black and white.

Other work departs further from Cubism to focus that much more on the glow. The easel scale and near uniform dimensions of her work brings out the shared interest in color and light. In one, a bubble appears tucked into the corner of a room. In another, a strip folded twice seems to float in space. It looks almost like a computer graphic. O’Keefe’s compositions and colors can seem arbitrary, but they underscore how abstraction is still learning from both modern art and the present.

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