Matt Blackwell, Onward, Forward (2011), oil and mixed-media on paper mounted on canvas, 36″ x 36″; courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery
* * *
The new art season is, if not quite in full swing, then getting off the ground. A friend likens it to the start of the school year. Another friend, a painter, rues the return of the usual suspects–fellow artists, critics, curators and collectors, stray curiosity seekers–whom he didn’t exactly miss over the summer. But while detachment is prudent when surveying the over-hyped Chelsea gallery scene, so is a modicum of hope. Otherwise, why bother? Here are the exhibits worth taking in, for better and for worse—but mostly better.
Ingrid Calame, whose paintings are at James Cohan Gallery, traces the contours of stains, blots, splashes and graffiti from city streets, the landscape and, of all things, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The resulting spiky and topographical drawings on mylar are superimposed and transcribed into sweeping abstractions. From a distance Ms. Calame’s pictures read as brash variations on the New York School. Up close, each loop, scrape and drip is meticulously filled-in and unapologetically secondhand–no dramatics or spontaneity here, just cool contrivance. This is painting at the service of gimmickry, and it’s not unappealing. Would that Ms. Calame’s palette, rendered in high-gloss enamel, weren’t arbitrary–its abrasiveness is unmoored and unearned. The exception is From #268 Drawing (Tracings from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the L.A. River) (2007), in which Ms. Calame integrates color, value and inadvertent calligraphy into dramatic equipoise.
Paul Henry Ramirez’s immaculately rendered paintings, on display at Caren Golden Fine Art, couple the high Modernist abstraction of Mondrian and Malevich with Pop Art’s punchy immediacy. Mr. Ramirez has a sense of humor, though how amusing you’ll find his art depends on your taste for juvenilia: His flat, streamlined forms are phallic emblems, neo-Suprematist cocks-and-balls. Once spotted—and you can’t miss them, there’s nothing else to see—Mr. Ramirez’s pictures are pretty much over and done with. Cute isn’t necessarily a liability, but here it’s used as a crutch. Glibness hampers yet another talented artist–too bad, and what else is new?
Matthew Blackwell, whose paintings are at Edward Thorp Gallery, has a lot on his mind–some of it obvious, some of it elusive, and all of it alternating between vitriolic and whimsical. He bemoans “luxury lofts”; deplores George W. Bush; despairs over the war in Iraq; exhibits equivocal hope for another Clinton administration; and posits beatific fantasies populated by farmers, Daniel Boone and Satan. These clotted, scratchy and cartoonish pictures are practiced: Mr. Blackwell is as adept as Jean-Michel Basquiat in approximating Expressionist fervor.
Meg Shields, whose small panel paintings are at Fischbach Gallery, is too good a painter to let herself get away with tricked-up compositions. She arranges still lives filled with worn and weathered oddments–a bird figurine, a fishing lure and a beat-up edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. She does so with the intent of tugging the viewer’s eye. The paintings do just that, but not so the artist herself disappears. We can’t shake loose of Ms. Shields’ machinations. Ms. Shields’ paintings are exemplars of understated and dutiful paint-handling. Her subtle observations reward close scrutiny: In one painting, it’s the pinholes in a photograph, in another a looping orange strap. The best painting, Root With Old Paper (2006), is the simplest–a root dangling in front of cherry-tree wallpaper. Here Ms. Shields aims for the dour quietude of the American painter Edwin Dickinson. She hits the mark.
Witness the divergent but weirdly compatible work of Sarah Lutz and Laura Battle at Lohin Geduld Gallery: Shell-like forms huddle amid hostile surroundings in Ms. Lutz’s moody abstractions. Ms. Battle, on the other hand, draws dizzying constellations of crystalline structure. Ms. Battle prefers ruled lines, clean surfaces and softly stated rhythms; Ms. Lutz the slur of oil paint, layering and forms that evolve with glacial determination. Reliance on sheer material accumulation links the two artists, as does their common approach to process: Improvisation guides their hands, even as it arrives at recurring imagery. And both artists tap into nature’s fecundity: For Ms. Battle it’s the subatomic and the astronomical; for Ms. Lutz it’s stuff growing under a rock and an overcast day.
Gordon Moore’s abstractions, on view at Betty Cunningham Gallery, are worrisome–there’s not a dud in the bunch. Fast and ready, each canvas is an essay in disjunction: Broad areas of painterly incident are interrupted and interlaced with taped-off and incomplete diagrams. Mr. Moore has his routine down: He sets washy veils of pigment, segmented areas of grayish tones and blurred runs of paint with mechanical consistency. The only time he steps outside the confines of style is in his paintings on photographs. In these, the juxtaposition of “real” space with overlaid geometric armatures is spooky, funny and just shy of magical. There’s nothing like an artist testing the boundaries of his expertise.
© 2007 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 25, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.