The Manhattan Scene
Bill Jensen at Mary Boone Chelsea | February 17 – March 24
Chris Martin at Galapagos | February 17 – March 3;
at Malca Fine Art | February 1 – March 31; at Sideshow | February 17 – March 9
Andrew Forge at Robert Miller | January 10 – February 10
Susanna Heller at Luise Ross | February 17 – March 31
A good painting will converge within the nerve endings of our sight and minds. Its presence can renew those linkages by encapsulating our experience through its perceptual sensibilities. Part of the process of encountering a painting is the puzzling nature of its drama. Experiencing it can be like meeting a person: when the layers of assumption slip off, one can graduate to a sense of playfulness and exchange, a mutual derailment of expectation that leaves one changed and refreshed. By contrast, the practitioners of Pop Art confer with brand-name products for subject matter and assert themselves through irony’s guidelines. Such a movement seems to have run its course, though, perhaps leaving it up to the painterly “dynamic of personality” to relocate us within an empathetic dialogue about the world’s conundrums and mysteries.
Four abstract painters—Bill Jensen, Chris Martin, Andrew Forge, and Susanna Heller, all of whom are showing in Manhattan this month—bring a particularly plastic sensibility to works that come to grips with the intangibles of living, those outermost questions that piggyback us daily. Each individual artist also reflects a branch in the development of modern painting, depending on the pivotal moment at which they entered. And each has made aesthetic choices that extend Modernism’s search for realities.
In the starkness of Bill Jensen’s workman-like studio, one can pinpoint the distance from wall to wall that keeps the weather at bay. Inside, Jensen’s recent paintings to be shown at Mary Boone’s space in Chelsea are charged with forceful expression. His approach in these works applies the formal grammar of Minimalism, one that produces measured elegance and proportionate inflection, heightened by gestures that serve as moments of immediate recognition. Divided into upper and lower sections, many works mediate a horizon of depth, upon which a loaded stroke lashes across a spatial expanse from edge to edge, with a film-like filigree that defines a negative space within the painting. Specific in character, each gesture surges with the emotional range of the human experience, from aroused protest to reflective melancholy.
Spending his summers in Italy allows Jensen to reflect upon Renaissance painters like Duccio, Sassetta, or Giotto—whose ability to convey grief through the simple gesture of “a hand that extends” amidst an undulating wall of robes reenacts life’s essential dramas. To find a modern expression of these kinds of realities, Jensen works through layers of “plowing and dredging” in these current works, so that they become extended meditations on loss, where invisibility and mass occur simultaneously, and where beauty’s links to truth necessarily reside within extended moments of anxiety.
A selection of Andrew Forge’s paintings from the past decade challenges the notion of spectacle in art. They shift down our desire to be dominated by an image. Instead they require contemplation, or rather an extension on the part of the viewer to reach them just beyond the halfway point of one’s optical distance. A Forge painting, made up of dots and dabs, modulates a framed field as though it is microcosmic, but the first impression of it as reductive soon changes because the eye begins to understand the thickness, the roundness, the fullness of his marks. Medium-sized, they present both a dissolution of sight and a welling up of sight, and, in combining harmonic opacities with a resilient mark-making, flicker a kind of dusk of impression: a tree, a field, a tent, March, or April. The distances and grouping of their dispersed chromas are not necessarily oppositions, but instead describe temperature, time, and place, and together mold and torque the sequential depth of plane. Meanwhile, the leftover elements of subtracted canvas merely serve to heighten these tensions.
One important starting point for Forge came from the insights of Bauhaus artist Paul Klee, who wanted to transfigure form through the fluctuation of substance before line appeared. For Klee, nature determined “the most essential condition. The artist is human; himself nature; part of nature and natural space.” Decisively, Forge implants a fully intentional presence behind these works. How did he get to such a place of completeness? As Forge describes it, he became aware that the discrepancy of scale between his early figurative paintings and their relationship to the exterior of the frame invited comparison and judgment. For Forge, the relationship between himself and nature is never one thing, but a swinging between the alternatives of being outside and looking in.
Chris Martin will be showing paintings in three different venues in February. The paintings “Long Lake” and “Full Moon Over Furlow Lake” at Malca Fine Art are works where tremendous size reverberates through the power of scale to induce a kind of psychological experience of space. “Long Lake” is a 36-foot triptych organized around motifs of geometric, yet metaphorical, shapes. Although its mood is unselfconsciously affirmative, the work is painted in black and white. Like crystalline molasses, its darkened space holds three descending rectangular “windows” that stretch across the canvases, where one can see randomly placed, yet orderly pinholes, of white. It is difficult to measure their depth, yet the expansiveness of their “distance” provokes a sense of giddiness.
Martin’s discoveries in “giganticism” channel the spirit of Egypt, where texts recognized the power of naming things as utter confirmation of life. From the Book of the Dead, one could quote, “Otherwise said: It means eternity and everlasting. As for eternity, it means daytime; as for everlasting, it means night…Otherwise said: It is the gate of the Duat.” Martin’s sense of heroic playfulness can also be contextualized within the brash energies of ’80s painters like Donald Baechler or Peter Halley; yet Martin’s operatic works possess the thickness of experience and describe a realized stasis, inscribed by his attention to Picasso’s use of personification, Guston’s “process of revision,” Mondrian’s analogues of spirit and Morandi’s geometric inversions. Within this approach he nevertheless manages to discard the strategies of direct appropriation and accessible paranoia.
Susanna Heller studied at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in a “conceptual” environment where Beuys, Weiner, and early Fischl held the stage. In the mid ’70s it was a place that questioned the ability of the artist to encompass the role of seer for the demands of contemporary society. Heller was formatively impressed by such stringent questioning and lent those concerns to the problems of painting. Heller’s series Wakes of Manhattan is a narrative and character history of New York, Brooklyn, and their shoreline, describing the process of building and dismantling in our great city. They are both aerial views and maps that generate a sense of flight through the layering of painterly experiences. This combination of map and moment foregrounds the oppositional force between the ever-moving eye and the gravitational counterpart of the stationary body.
Like Bruegel, Heller personifies an environment where demonic forces and political and mystical spooks wreak havoc upon, or rise out of, the bowels of the city. Van Gogh is also a muse, as Heller stridently reconnects to the raw essences of materials, from torn canvas to fat globs of paint, which in their dark humor cavort with a life force that reflects the tremors of their causality. Her literal and metaphorical subject is scaffolding, a structure that has been indispensable to the building of civilization, from the Parthenon to the World Trade Center. For Heller, scaffolding represents a female form: semi-open and moveable, necessary and expendable, and dismantled and stored away when its purpose is accomplished. In such a world, the sun, moon, and stars are not spheres that define time, but instead heavenly lanterns of night and day that illuminate, warm, and help us see.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.