Friday, October 9, 2015

Helen O'Leary: Between moments of certainty

HELEN O'LEARY  Short Shift, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    17 x 12 x 5"
"Delicate Negotiations" Helen O'Leary at Lesley Heller Workspace (through October 18)
The notion that there are numerous layers of meaning beyond what we initially see is nothing new. Whether it is literature, music, choreography or visual arts, the complexity of our experiences is the very thing that makes the arts so rewarding. The work of Helen O'Leary embodies a multiplicity of meanings and does so with unassuming power. Combining both painting and sculpture, O'Leary's work evidences purposefulness as well as deep emotion, drawing on her life as an artist, as well as her personal narrative.

"I locate my work between the moments of material and emotional certainty..." (Helen O'Leary, Studio Critical interview, September 2012)

At first glance, O'Leary's wall paintings appear to be painted over thin remnants of metal or cardboard that have been folded, partially flattened, and then attached to a support. The edges of the paintings are irregular and ragged, as if cut from something larger, and the surfaces are punctuated here and there by small holes. The matte surfaces are generally painted in a muted palette (although several pieces have a luscious ceramic-like luster). Small sections of the armature are visible on several of these paintings, enlivening the shadows on the wall. There is a quiet completeness to these paintings, and also a sense of mystery. However, the front face of these paintings, with its small valleys, shadows, and perforations, obscures a more complex story.

HELEN O'LEARY  Holdout, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    14 x 20 x 5"

Since several paintings rest on pedestals, we can see both the fronts and backs, revealing another part of O'Leary's narrative. She begins by constructing a thin wooden slab as a support for each painting --  gluing and patching together fragments of studio detritus to create an armature. And it is only by seeing the backs of these paintings --  the support --  that we come to understand more of her intentions. Not only does each painting contain a history that incorporates physical remnants from O'Leary's past, she very deliberately shares it with us. 

HELEN O'LEARY  The Measurement of All Things, 2013-15    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    13 x 10 x 2"

The Measurement of All Things, 2013-15  (detail of back)
HELEN O'LEARY  The Business of Kindness, 2014    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    9.5 x 14 x 2"

The Business of Kindness, 2014    (back view)

For several of the largest pieces, the patched wood surface remains in full view, rather than having  been concealed and smoothed out under a painted surface. Unlike the austerity of the smaller works, here we see the messiness and energy with which O'Leary attacks the making of the work --  the busyness of patched, glued and painted fragments. In these pieces, the emotional pitch has been ratcheted up to a feverish energy.

HELEN O'LEARY  Delicate Negotiations, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    68 x 48 x 10"

Delicate Negotiations, 2015   (detail)

Several pieces enter yet another realm -- the patched surfaces are still evident, but are partially obscured by paint. The concealment seems to suggest a quiet desperation to contain the energy of the making.

HELEN O'LEARY  Efficiency of Love, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    56 x 43 x 5"

HELEN O'LEARY  A Measurement for Happiness, 2013   Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    19 x 11 x 5.5"

The exhibit also includes several sculptures constructed into wobbly open networks using fragments of wood (more studio history) that have been joined and glued together. They share a sense of urgency and compressed energy that contrast with the calm of the smallest paintings.

HELEN O'LEARY  The Exactitude of Everything, 2013   Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    24 x 20 x 7.5"

HELEN O'LEARY  Quarantine 2 (after Eavan Boland) 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    110 x 72 x 14"

O'Leary's work is at once serene and meticulously worked, while filled with an insistent energy and edginess. What remains is the inevitability of uncertainty.
Gorky's Granddaughter interview with Helen O'Leary, September 2015 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Stanley Whitney @ Karma | Step by step

"That’s the way I want to move—step by step by step. My work changes very slowly……    
Taking every step—that’s something I stole from Mondrian."  
Stanley Whitney  (2014 interview with Alteronce Gumby, BOMB's Oral History Project)

The springboard for this post was a recent visit to Karma (in Manhattan's East Village) to see an exhibit of Stanley Whitney's paintings and studies from the 1990s (up through August 16).  In the spacious exhibition area in the back of the gallery are five large paintings lush with Whitney's vibrant palette, but also filled with very energized mark-making that contrasts with the clarity of his current work. In these paintings, the compositional foundation for the work that would follow is already in place. 

Stanley Whitney, In Our Songs, 1996     oil on linen,  77 x 103"
Stanley Whitney, The Trials of Misfortune, 1996     oil on linen,  80 x 103"

These large paintings are marvelous to see, but it is the wall of 84 small works in the front area of the gallery that I find particularly captivating.  Hung salon style are 31 oil on canvas studies (roughly 7 x 9.5") and 53 works on paper (either crayon or graphite on paper, various sizes ranging from 9 x 12"  up  to 17 x 20"). 

Installation detail of small works by Stanley Whitney @ Karma

I'd been thinking about the role of small studies (both drawn and painted) in the evolution of my own work, and seeing this wall of Whitney's work served as a prompt to write about it. For visual artists, studies are a way to refine and clarify ideas. Starting with a familiar vocabulary of marks, composition, and palette, and working through endless iterations, studies offer a path towards moving beyond what is already known. Not to be confused with preparatory sketches for larger works, studies are a form of visual brainstorming--done without editing or censorship. Relatively modest in size, they require little preparation and often can be executed fairly rapidly. While some artists use bound sketchbooks for their studies so that the sequence remains intact, others, myself included, often hang them up on the studio walls, always within sight. 

The array of small studies in this exhibit should serve to dispel the notion that creativity is driven by inspiration. Of course--we see things, we go places, we have conversations that may spark us to think in new ways. And Whitney has unequivocally stated in several interviews that a visit to Egypt in the mid-1990s transformed the way he thought about space. But inspiration must be cultivated. We have to ready ourselves to be open to the 'Aha moment'. And that happens through the daily habit of drawing; it happens because of  the willingness to engage with the familiar over and over and over again, moving in small steps, until we can take a leap.

Stanley Whitney in his Cooper Square studio, 1983. Photo by Marina Adams
From this 1983 photo, it is clear that Whitney's studies have been a constant presence in his studio.  Small drawings (whether with paint, graphite, or crayons) are central to his process.   ".... The drawings were very important to me: they were key to figuring out the space. Even now with the paintings, no matter how structured they are, the lucid stuff really belongs to drawing." (2008 interview with John Yau, Brooklyn Rail). 

Whitney's compositional vocabulary has long revolved around subverting the grid.  By the 1990s, he was working with a loosely defined structure that incorporated rows of repeated forms interspersed with often spindly horizontal elements. Unlike the airy and majestic paintings now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, executed from 2008 to 2015 and dominated by color, in the works of the 1990s line and gesture vie for attention alongside the color. Whitney's graffiti-like, almost scribbled lines seem ready to burst out of the the irregular orbs and rectangles that parade across the rows. The thin, horizontal bands provide an overall structure to works that are densely packed and appear ready to burst from the edges.

These crayon on paper drawings date from the mid-1990s and are approximately 9 1/2 x 12 inches.

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

By examining Whitney's studies, you see him explore how the rows communicate, how forms variously open up across a row or elbow tightly together.  You see him grappling with space, color, and with the tension between line and color.  Rapidly executed studies make visible the many permutations that are possible within a given framework and ultimately allow us to leap (or slowly step) to a new place.  The scope of Whitney's studies reveal the diligence and concentration of a mind and hand always at work, continuously exploring and questioning step-by-step, asking why this and not that?

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 12.5 x 17"   photo courtesy of Karma

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 16.75 x 20"   photo courtesy of Karma

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 16.5 x 20.5"   photo courtesy of Karma

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 12.5 x 17"   photo courtesy of Karma
The 30 small oil on canvas paintings,  dating from 1991-1994  and approximately 7 x 9.5",  are in some instances more open with the forms afloat within each row, while in others the forms are jam-packed and more spatially confined. In these small paintings, Whitney has focused on color and composition, and there is little evidence of the frenzied mark-making that dominate the graphite and crayon drawings. From the changing placement of the repeated circular forms, he appears to be grappling with the construction of space. As time passes, we see the an occasional rectangular form and a change in how he is defining the space.

STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1992   oil on canvas    7 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma

STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1993   oil on canvas    7 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma
STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1994   oil on canvas    7 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma

STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1994   oil on canvas    7.125 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma

From the 84 studies on exhibit (and I suspect there may have been many more) it is evident that Whitney was well prepared for that 'Aha moment' in Egypt in 1996. 

"And as I said, I always had the color. The color was never an issue. The issue was, how was I going to make the color subject matter. And I didn't really know that this was my big question all those years, but that's what I was asking. I was always working on how to put the color in the right space. So, Egypt was the last piece of the puzzle. Density. I realized that I could just pack the color together."  (2014 interview with Alteronce Gumby, BOMB's Oral History Project)

Karma has just published a book featuring Whitney's work from 1975 to 2015. Click here for more information.

To read the in-depth interview on BOMB, click here.   

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Conversations | Type of Abstraction @ Key Projects

Lately, I’ve noticed myself noticing how I look at art – very much a metacognitive approach to viewing. Why do I spend so much time with this piece, but not the one next to it by the same artist? What about the piece pulls me in initially, and then compels me to take another look?  Why am I indifferent to some work after the first look? What am I looking at? What am I seeing?

Dialogue, whether conscious or not, underpins the process of seeing. As the viewer, of course I am always a participant in the conversation and play a major role in shaping its direction because of my own interests. But the direction of the dialogue on any given day is always shifting -- it may focus on exchanges between the work of different artists in a group exhibit, or my own give and take with a single work of art. It may explore how several works in a solo exhibit inform one another, or why it is that a particular painting leaves me smiling (or indifferent).  The exchange begins when the work beckons me in, whether demanding that I take notice of it, or coyly cajoling. My willingness to engage is not guaranteed—I’m opinionated and at times impatient. But when the impatience vanishes, the thoughts that follow help me better understand my own work.

In response to several recent exhibits along with (actual) conversations with friends, I've decided to write about what happens in my head when I look at and converse with art. Rather than focusing on whether I find work appealing or not, these posts will be about uncovering what I notice and why.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This series of posts begins with thoughts about TYPE OF ABSTRACTION @ Key Projects,  an exhibit featuring the work of Anke Becker, Enrico Gomez, Heidi Neilson and Karen Schiff and curated by Patricia Zarate. Each of the artists integrate text or type (letter forms) in their work, transforming it in a manner that removes any expectation that text is there to be read. Although certainly, the specific texts being referenced have significance and one can analyze the intentions that motivate references to text, in this post my primary interest is visual. 

First, an overview of the exhibit (for additional installation photos click here).  Photos provided by Key Projects, Tamar Zinn, and artist websites.

left to right: GOMEZ,   NEILSON,   GOMEZ 


left to right:  SCHIFF, BECKER

After entering the exhibit, I immediately noticed pieces that were bold and graphic  counterbalanced by works that were (at least from the distance) far quieter. Black, white, tan and grays were the predominant palette, punctuated by a few pieces that were more colorful, but still subdued. Much of the work was new to me.

After that initial look, my mind starting pinging around the room. I took notice of the high contrast, rectangular volumes in the work of Enrico Gomez across from the black and gray discs that covered the surface of Anke Becker's drawings. Straight / round. Forms hovering over a field / carpet page. Powerful dimensionality / flattened silhouettes. Additionally, I saw that these two artists were also connected by movement and rhythm across the page -- in Gomez's case, stepping down each drawing with an emphatic 'here I am' and with Becker's work, 'come with me as I move across the page.'  Gomez deconstructs the letter E, while Becker obscures the text of Das Kapital with the silhouettes of coins. If you look closely at Becker's drawings, you can see the text it covers.

ENRICO GOMEZ,  Beat Hope Alive I, 2014   18 x 14”
compressed charcoal on paper

ANKE BECKER  (l) Mein Kapital No29, 2014  (r) Mein Kapital No15, 2014

Each 8 x 11.25”   indian ink on book pages of Karl Marx’ “Das Kapital”

In a corner adjacent to Becker's drawings was a suite of six small pieces by Karen Schiff. Unlike the more insistent presence of Gomez and Becker, this work quietly invited me over for a closer look. In each piece, the whitewashed text of a book is traversed by several lines of silk thread in pathways that zigzag down the page. The stitching appears to connect the ending punctuation of barely visible paragraphs as if to accentuate the pauses in the text. While at first the work seems visually subdued, the movement through it was active and angular.

KAREN SCHIFF    Dots Connecting (Nancy Drew), study, 2015

7 ¼ x 31 ¾”  (detail: 2 of 6 parts)   latex paint & silk on book pages

Turning again, I moved from line and angularity back to dots and grids.
Hanging on the wall between the four drawings by Gomez was Heidi Neilson's airy scroll covered with a grid of dot-like notations. Before I even drew close to it, it looked like something I would want to touch--the surface appeared to be bumpy. And unlike the tight fields of dark discs in Becker's work, Neilson's dots were spaced apart and the grid laid down in an irregular weave. It wasn't until I moved in quite close that I understood why I wanted to touch the surface--each dot was collaged onto the paper (produced by hole-punching the sentence endings from Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward).


HEIDI NEILSON    Untitled, (Looking Backward) undated
41 ½ x 18”    mixed media collage

detail of above:  HEIDI NEILSON    Untitled, (Looking Backward) undated

Hanging directly across from Neilson's scroll piece were three intaglio prints, made up of horizontal bands. While this work was difficult to read from the distance, I could see that the images were structured in tightly packed rows. Moving in closer to investigate, the rows seemed to have the rhythm of written language --  each row a series of small packets of varying length punctuated by narrow vertical spaces. The white spaces were highly embossed and I could imagine reading across the surface with my fingertips. Not surprisingly, these prints are also the work of Heidi Neilson. Although the three prints and the scroll are made with different systems of mark-making, they were connected through Neilson's affinity for structure and the inclusion of tactile elements. Neilson made these prints by setting up metal type, letter by letter, tiny piece by tiny piece, then inking the back side and printing, only revealing the text through the title of each print.

HEIDI NEILSON Miranda rights verso (Futura bold condensed 48pt), 2006
12 x 8”   intaglio print

HEIDI NEILSON   Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Century Schoolbook 10pt), 2006

2.75 x 3.75”   intaglio print

While Nielson's intaglio prints were made by with numerous carefully placed pieces of metal type, also on exhibit were several pieces by Karen Schiff printed using small inked rubber stamps. The only work in the exhibit that broke away from black, white, tan and gray (the typical palette for printed text), I also found that these pieces embraced pattern in a manner that was somewhat playful. The same letter or symbol is stamped repeatedly across the grid, but gradually disappears into the overall pattern of the page. Irregular forms then emerge from the grid after Schiff accentuates some areas of the page with colored inks. What was striking was the irregularity of the prints -- not what we might expect by making the same mark with the same tool numerous times.

KAREN SCHIFF  (left to right)    Oo (Ghost Shape), 2015       +x (Interlineal Ghosts), 2015       Xo (Aporia), 2015

Each 10 5/8 x 8”   ink & graphite on stamp album paper

Installed by itself on a set of shelves emptied of books was one additional piece by Heidi Neilson. Set apart from the main exhibit area and the last thing I saw on my way out, it served to wrap up the conversation. The presentation was bold, but the piece sat patiently, waiting to be noticed. If you didn't read the title, the circle set in the square set on the horizontal bands of the shelves could have been a reference to typography, or not. 

HEIDI NEILSON   Typography of the Period: A Brief Introduction, 2003   8.5 x 8.5 x .25"

My exchange with the works in this exhibit led me to consider form, repetition, pattern, movement, rhythm, the density or airiness of the mark-making, and reinforced my delight in works that quietly reveal their tactile qualities.  What thoughts went through your mind after seeing this work? How do your own preoccupations shape how you see?