Friday, April 15, 2011

Betty Cuningham Gallery 541 West 25st. John Lees, through May 14th

Jonn Lees at the Betty Cuningham Gallery

John Lees is an artist I'm very familiar with. I know not just his work, but him personally. He was my adviser in art school, and he was such a passionate and kind hearted person that I've made a point of seeing every show of his I hear about. One of the things he's most known for is the amount of time he spends painting and repainting an image. There are, in fact paintings in this show that were started in the 70's. Are they finished now? How can he tell? The paint is very thick and in some places almost sculptural. The pallet is that of Rembrandt, but the surface is more like Albert Pinkham Ryder. The canvas is very worn and beaten up. He's always worked very intuitively, and in certain cases canvases have been literally cut from their stretcher bars, and glued onto a larger canvases, so that Lees could transform them into a larger composition. This is just one of the qualities that make his work extremely uncommercial.
The subject matter is always both humble, and monolithic. There are several images of a bathtub in the show, as well as a road, a farm house, a man in a chair. These are great personal icons to Lees, but he doesn't seem to feel the need to explain them to his audience. There is very little narrative involved in these paintings. There is also very little detail, in spite of the constant reworking. In fact, a lot of the paint application seems to be more about developing the physical presents of the painting than rendering the image. Lees should probably be best thought of as a romantic modernist. He treats the physical object as a fossil. It's lived a life, and had a history. One that it's shared with him.
To tell you the truth, the thick paint and battered surfaces of the paintings that were painted in a year or two don't seem that different from the ones that took 40 years to finish. At least they don't seem noticeably different to me. They probably do to Lees though, who is privy to the amount and quality of information buried under their surfaces. From my experience Lees is not just a romantic. He's kind of a sentimentalist. I think his unwillingness to finish a painting is a reflection of this sentimentality. He spends many years struggling with his paintings, and he doesn't want to let them go. For him it's probably like ending a relationship, or watching your children leave home.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pace Gallery 510 West 25st. James Siena, through April 30th

James Siena a the Pace Gallery

James Siena is an artist that I've heard a great deal about over the years, and I'm sure I've seen some of his work before. In fact I've probably seen a show of his at some point, but he's someone I know more about from what I've heard than seen. He's know for his repetitive geometric abstract paintings that are done on a very small scale, and are painted with enamel on thick sheets of aluminum. The way he works is by creating some kind of pre-established rule or measured unit, and slowly builds out from that. He refers to it as a "visual algorithm", and each painting has its own original one. The result is a variety of different images. Some paintings are very hard edged and geometric, some are cartoon like and quasi figurative, and some have the character of a never ending doodle.
I've heard his work called intimate, and musical, and I guess those are both good adjectives. To me though the small scale just seems constrained, and stiflingly so. Also, the repetitive way the imagery is painted seems very mechanical, not to mention labored. This must be intentional, because the materials have such strong mechanical associations, but I don't understand what's gained by depersonalizing the work. There are a number of etchings in the show which seem even colder, and more mechanical. One out of every five or six images was kind of pretty, but for the most part these are not attractive paintings. I kept thinking that on some level this must be a parody of geometric abstraction, but none of the literature I've read on him seems to suggest so.
In the back room of the gallery, Siena has a group of more figurative paintings and prints. They're images of monster heads, and close up sexual organs. This caused me to look at the repetitive patterns of the first room differently. It gave the work a kind of pre adolescent therapeutic quality. I'm not sure if that makes it any more interesting though. Maybe I'm just missing something. I do that sometimes.

Pace Gallery 534 West 25st Elizabeth murray: painting in the 70's, through April 30th

Elisabeth Murray at Pace Gallery

This is at the other Pace, just down the block a little west of the other gallery on 25th street. It's a beautiful gallery, but because the work is from the collections of a few museums the guards wouldn't let me take any photos of the paintings. Fascists! Consequently the image I have here is not from the show, but from a book I have at home. It's also not a painting from the 70's.
That said,Elizabeth Murray, who died just a few years ago, is an artist who's gotten a lot of attention ever since the early 80's. In fact she received a retrospective a few years before she died at the MOMA. Personally I don't think that it's nearly as much attention as she should get, or will get in the future. She was a really great painter, and a very important late modernist whose artistic contributions have yet to be fully appreciated. Well, I appreciate them, but I mean everyone else. In her relationship to the cubists, and the abstract expressionists I see her as kind of a female Frank Stella. They were both a generation removed, and the way she literally shattered the rectangle of the picture plane was similar to the way he did, but she seems to have had more fun doing it. Her work is more playful and organic than his, and she seemed willing to allow her paintings to be pretty. That's not something you can say about most abstractionists, and there's something that seems distinctly feminine about it. Some people might think that's a sexist thing to say, but hey, if you have a problem with it, you know where I live.
This show focuses on the 70's. which is particularly interesting, because it's the time when Murray was just deciding to physically disrupt the surface and framework of her paintings. She was also just starting to recognize a relationship, and establish a dialogue between the internal and external space of her work. The show chronicles how she became more aware of the physical integrity of the paint and the surface of the painting. You can see then, how she morphed and fractured the surface of her work so that image and object became one. She ended up making distinct and original paintings that are both intelligent, and wildly imaginative. The show serves as a valuable record of one artists curiosity, and courage.