Nancy Drewby Rachel Youens
Although Nancy Drew's newest suite of paintings at Roebling Hall, facsimiles of well-known paintings by modern masters, is touted as retinal and trippy art, and an homage rather than a critique, they still appear to fill the stage with a postmodern moment. So that while Drew's promotional backdrop emphasizes influences such as psychedelia and decorative art, I wished, as I walked through the show, not only for more eye candy, but for something with the edginess of, say, Sherrie Levine's appropriation projects in the '80s, something that goes beyond the paintings' mimetic process and competes more successfully with the originals.
The originals here, as the artist acknowledges, are magical as well as authoritative, and were chosen because of their associations with trips taken to the Museum of Modern Art as a child with her father. Drew's choice of father figures is clear: from Arshile Gorky to Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Morris Louis; from the neurotic genius to the didactic mystic, the lyrical dreamer, or the taciturn and principled depressive.
Nonetheless, Drew's parameters of reference are probably too divorced from the spirit of the originals. All these men took the risk of challenging previous forms of representation in painting in order to create abstraction, and in the process they created a classical style that, while it often touched on the decorative, carried with it a resonance of immediacy and presence. Not only is the scale of Drew's copies often imprecise, the copies also lack the swift deftness of ornament of the originals, and are more like the awkward exercises of a loving student. With their shiny yet grainy reflective surfaces, the sparkle, and flocking are far less intangible than the works they emulate, even as they reference the line between the labor of an underclass and the glitter of disco. I wanted a stronger, more combative impulse to drive the work, a kind of battle of the sexes where the strategies of a loving antagonist could be utilized—perhaps mechanical negations, trompe l'oeil effects, or explicit satire.
While Drew's choice of material links this series to a feminist critique, there appears to be a conflation between her admiration for the work she emulates and the type of postmodern stance implied here: negative critique, after all, can and does have the value of bursting assertions of universality, which is what feminist artists have often intended to do. More mastery itself, one that visually effaces such masterworks' compelling authority and the mythos surrounding them, might have made Drew's project more successful.
Drew's admiration for these patriarchs diminishes the possibilities for her to move beyond the mere act of rebellion and instead create substitutes that convey the female artist's invisibility in relation to monolithic male creativity. There is only one painting in the show that is gorgeous enough to suggest the glamour of its making: "Morris Louis 1959." As a neo-postmodern move, Drew's paintings are more of a reaction than a resistance.
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.