This section contains writing that wasn't published, but that I felt compelled to articulate anyways.
Lucy Bull: Piper @ David Kordansky Gallery, New York, September 2022.
Lucy Bull paints with an infectious energy. Her hand flicks, twists and dabs the surface of the canvas incessantly, creating works that overflow with textured brushwork and saturated color. Many of her paintings look like trippy fractals or alien cathedrals. Chromatic spirals and rippling patterns abound. The sheer quantity of visual information makes a strong impression, dazzling the eye with so many radiant marks. Bull skillfully combines acidic colors that should not work together, generating intoxicating atmospheres that beckon viewers towards them. By overlaying warm and cool pigments, she generates a pervasive glow that energizes the work. Flashes of turquoise vibrate amid a field of pulsating orange and pink. Bull seems to have internalized the mechanics of our retinas, and she uses this knowledge to create optical twists and turns that stretch out our vision. Viewing these paintings can feel like performing light-hearted acrobatics with your eyes.
Bull’s decision to load her canvases with so many chromatic and textural shifts also has consequences for how they read as a whole. Without nameable references or obvious protagonists, abstract paintings draw their force from the relationships between their constituent parts. So many of Bull’s marks have the same size and energy level, and rarely appear to contradict each other. In this way, viewing Bull’s work can feel like listening to a piano virtuoso playing scales: an exercise whose emphasis on a specific type of technical agility precludes the capacity for pathos or narrative depth. Through repetition, her undeniably inventive marks come to feel like endless embellishment without clear stakes. Some of the more successful canvases manifest distinct compositional events, but evenly distributed mark-making deflates the impact of Bull’s facility with a brush. By filling every corner with color and texture, Bull leaves no voids for the viewer’s imagination to fill—no fissures that call out for repair or omissions that provoke our curiosity.
All of Bull’s marks appear directly rendered and each one seems designed to add visual interest to the picture. Confronted with this deluge of bright, vibrating shapes, I found myself longing for a counterforce—such as a crisp edge, evidence of significant erasure, neutral tones or passage of calm—against which these tactile pleasures could generate tension. These paintings seem to exist in a purely affirmative register, leaving out the realm of psychic energy conjured by gestures of negation or withholding. The striking impact that Bull achieves by packing her works with brushy action comes at the cost: there is no space for indeterminate longing—desire which simmers slowly. This work manifests a present moment so abundant that it leaves no room for contemplating the past of the future. I can imagine that for some viewers this instantaneous exuberance feels nourishing. The fact that I found it stifling says as much about my inclinations as a viewer as it does about Bull’s paintings.
I found myself compelled to write about Bull’s paintings because the nature of their accomplishment is directly connected to the source of their limitations— and this is a predicament that I relate to in my own work as a painter and critic. The obvious strength of her painterly technique eventually undermines the significance of technical accomplishment. I left the show feeling conflicted about both Bull’s paintings and my own expectations as a viewer. Why can’t I just enjoy their skillful brushwork and wild glow? What drives my desire for paintings that are pleasurable and challenging at the same time? Bull’s show was impactful in that it got me thinking about why I care so much about painting and what I want from it—-which is in a way the most sincere compliment you can bestow upon a peer.
Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities @ The New Museum, New York, June 2022. Curated by Bernardo Mosquiera.
Spending time amid Daniel Lie’s installation, “Unnamed Entities'' at the New Museum caused me to reflect on the presumed authority of language in relation to the flowing continuity of sensory experience. Language’s ability to propose clear boundaries and discrete meanings leads to an intoxicating illusion of control over the world around us. And while academic discourse has thoroughly demonstrated the linkage between European rationalism and colonial violence, it feels different when it is the richness of our bodily experience that dislodges the binaries and categorical distinctions that permeate many languages. During the time I spent with their work, I noticed that I did very little analytical thinking. Instead I found myself immersed in a loop of noticing ever smaller details about the environment that Lie created and tracing the connections between these elements.
Lie’s work embraces cycles of energy. The rapid growth of seedlings gives way to a slow decomposition and eventually a fungal bloom. Experiencing this work as an ever-shifting arrangement also applied a subtle pressure to my sense of self. To believe in the autonomy of a cultural object is a way of reinforcing the belief in the autonomy of the self. Lie’s installation points to the fallacy of this framework, and this caused me to think of myself as a shifting unstable entity bound up in a web of mutual dependence and influence—growing and decaying simultaneously. Lie’s open embrace of decay carries powerful corollaries. Individualism fuels the fear of death and the tendency to see it as a negative finality. Without the underlying belief in the self as a singular presence, death ceases to make sense as a permanent absence. I also found my initial understanding of decomposition as the entropic wake of an organism's death upended by the implicit continuity of Lie’s work. Decay is a generative process, and one whose results we cannot always know.
My visit occurred at a point in the life-cycle of Lie’s installation when all the greenery had withered away and even the fungal activity had slowed down and dried out. The air smelled of dry soil and a yellowish white crust had formed beneath the clay urns that populate the gallery. I felt a sense of loss for having missed the earlier—presumably more dramatic—-stages of visible growth, but this slower phase forced me to confront my expectations. Why do I need obvious signs of “progress”? Am I projecting capitalist notions of accumulation onto this biological space? Having lived in New York City for over a decade, I felt challenged in a refreshing way by an artwork that resists the frenetic pace of the city. A slow process can be a powerful teacher, especially when it comes to imagining an expansive notion of care.
Lie’s installation has a strong sense of ritualistic space. The swooping shrouds of jute and soil, bundles of dried flowers, and hanging cloth banners contribute to a ceremonial atmosphere but not one that I recognized. This particular constellation of materials and intentions seems to honor loss and abundance at the same time. Lie has transformed this gallery into a vessel that can accommodate a profound range of psychic needs. With so many generalized and specific traumas refracting through our world, this gesture manages to be optimistic and healing without diminishing the gravity of our struggles.
Photo credit: Dario Lasagni
Beaux Mendes: Capitol Reef @ Miguel Abreu, New York - March 2022
Beaux Mendes crafts ghostly images with few legible references, relying instead on luminous whispers of pigment to animate their surfaces. Their commitment to the subtler registers of physical mark-making generates ambiguous yet compelling images and sets them apart from many in their generation who prioritize punchy subject matter over paint handling. Mendes has a talent for conjuring shapes that are evocative yet incomplete—inviting our imagination to repair the fissures in their spatial logic. I was compelled to revisit this show and found the time I spent with the work deeply enriching and a bit irksome—a combination of feelings that I’ve become familiar with as the aftertaste of a powerful show.
Mendes’s work is strongest when concrete elements pull against the delicate ambiance of erasure. Since all the paintings are untitled it doesn’t help to name them here, but one of them features a partial silhouette of what looks like an upturned goose against a predominantly white ground. Besides pointing to a legible referent, the snippets of animal anatomy generate pictorial force because they have hard edges that contrast with wispy bits of beige. Besides the graphic outcome of a crisp line, this move entails a dynamic shift in energy within the picture— something which feels missing from some of the other work in the show. Another off-white panel features a knotty junction that resembles a knee joint that stands out against its backdrop. This declarative form still maintains its mystery, and kept me wondering as to the specificity of its referent. Some of the other references that creep into the work (a banister, an owl, a crudely rendered humanoid) didn’t do much for me, but the huge marbleized dog-shaped coffin landed like a gut-punch. This sculpture is stunning in a way that makes me not even want to explain my feelings for it.
Despite yielding some quietly radiant surfaces, Mendes's reliance on the aura of erased marks wears thin at points. Their frequent use of scraping and wiping away emphasizes the texture of a painting's support. At times the woodgrain or brushy primer beneath results in gorgeous and ghostly forms. In the less successful instances, this approach feels like artificial aging—a shortcut to visual complexity that is a touch nostalgic. A faint haze of color over a textured surface will certainly charm a screen-weary eye, but this tactic needs a counter-force to generate pictorial tension—the real source of lasting interest. A drawback of Mendes’s preference for thinned down paint is that it limits the consequences of erasure. Thicker and more oily paint leaves a wider range of textures and tones as it is removed. I found myself thinking of Bill Jensen’s paintings in relation to some of Mendes’s work. They seem to share an interest in excavating unforeseen hallucinations from the surface of the painting. Jensen goes to great lengths to mix his pigments with damar varnish and turpentine such that his scraping away leaves wild and varied textures. I found myself wanting a wider range of surfaces from Mendes’s work, specifically some passages that aren't drained of saturation by thinning and sanding.
Two larger works consist of minimally altered pieces of wood, and their presence elevates the entire exhibition by complicating the notion of authorship at work in the paintings. One of them is a magnificent specimen of burlwood whose swirling grain and irregular shape are simply gorgeous. Apparently unaltered by the artist, this appears to be a spectacular example of a non-anthropocentric readymade. What can we possibly do with our hands and egos that would rival this exquisite found form? The second of these unpainted works complicates the reverence for nature that underlies the burl-wood. This undulating rectangle displays the repeating grain pattern that occurs when you peel a log—as happens in the process of making plywood. I overheard the gallerist mention that Mendes used a CNC router in this work, and so I suspect that intervention is the source of the small scoops taken out of the works surface. The oval-shaped cross-section of a knot repeats itself in the upper third while a band of dark grain travels horizontally beneath them. The resulting image feels mechanical in its repetition, despite the overtly organic quality of the wood grain—like when you slice a carrot into many discs how it no longer resembles a vegetable. Unlike the burl-wood, I found this work haunting in that it suggests that our relationship to the natural world involves both reverence and violence.
Taken together, this suite of paintings and the coffin-sculpture constitute a substantial offering amid a painting discourse which often feels drained of material pleasure by the pressure to yield attractive JPEGs. Mendes’s work rewards a patient viewer, and resists the market fervor for hyper-legible politics in painting. Also, for what it’s worth, Capitol Reef is one of the best titles I’ve seen for an art show in years.
Van Hanos: Conditional Bloom @ Lisson Gallery, New York - July 2021
If the Olympics included painting, Van Hanos would medal in multiple events. Each of the many styles on display is expertly executed and none of them come up short in terms of difficulty. Beyond the impressive dexterity, the paintings in this show manifest many registers of pathos amid the material pleasure of paint. A series of small works depicts ghostly hands clapping, with some of them dissolving into echoing arcs of pallor. These enigmatic works resonate with an indistinct sadness. Pictures of hands will never make noise, but we can imagine the applause and wonder who it is for and whether it is tender or mocking.
A large work depicts a plein air painting class in garish primary colors with a vivid blue sky. The painting feels harsh and unfulfilling, despite the surplus of visual information it contains. An outstretched arm holds up a canvas that faces away from the viewer. I wondered if this narrative scene was meant to conjure vast archive of cliches and pitfalls that weigh down most entries into this crowded medium. Hanos obviously sustains his faith in the discipline, but doubt and death abound in the haunted moments that punctuate the show. A battered pickup truck sits in on the desert floor at night, a large and spooky canvas in with a vacant protagonist.
A crisply rendered agave plant, uprooted and on its side, sits amid a pleasing field of grey. Hanos depicts the complex form and texture of this plant with stunning level of skill, extremely precise blending that never feels tight. That the silhouette of this dead plant also resemble a duck adds humor to this quietly morose work. I left this show feeling that painting is a vital tool for exploring the emotional limits of the imagination. We need to continually recharge our symbols and recalibrate our perception, and paint remains a facile vehicle for this task. One of the more playful works in the show depicts a lit candle on top of a messy field of saturated colors scraped and smeared on the surface. The flame presents a moment of calm focus made from the same stuff as the chaos that surrounds it.