Joel Longenecker

Joel Longenecker, "Rough Life" (2003), oil on linen. Courtesy of N3 Project Space.

N3 Project Space

Four quickly executed watercolors begin Joel Longenecker’s exhibition at N3 Project Space. Each relies on a lattice-work of blue, green, and earth tone brush strokes for structure. The resulting grid is wide open with plenty of gray ground showing through. The marks themselves are aggressive. They cut swiftly, threatening to break free of the grid holding them. The spontaneity of these small watercolors highlights Longenecker’s gestural style of painting and shows the artist at his best: intense and impatient.
Unfortunately, Longenecker abandons this approach in his oils, six of which are on display in the show. In them, he slows his hand dramatically. Although he carries the grid structure over from the watercolors, Longenecker abandons the slashing brushwork. Rather than allowing his sweeping strokes to define the painting’s structure, he imposes a grid on his oils so that red marks are contained within one square, grays in another.

In containing his brushwork, Longenecker clips his own wings and allows his paintings to become static. His unrelenting palette of earth tones, grays, reds, and oranges settles too easily into this balance, adding to a monotony that spells death for gestural abstraction. This is perhaps most evident in "Just Looking," the largest painting in the show, the scale and pattern of which suggest nothing more than a large quilt.

One oil painting in the show escapes this fate. In "Rough Line," Longenecker allows his brushwork to explode the underlying grid and recapture some of the thrill of his watercolors. A cascade of cadmium red begins in the upper left-hand corner and falls to center, changing value and hue to an ochre/cadmium yellow and exiting bottom center. This open expanse of paint balances handsomely the green-framed rectangle of gray-blue that sits comfortably in the painting’s upper right. Longenecker’s return to relational painting outside the grid is a breath of fresh air, both welcome and successful.

Emotive, gestural abstraction of the sort for which Longenecker clearly strives, trades on the immediacy of its content conveyed through spontaneous paint handling. The delicacy and freedom of movement necessary to such painting cannot withstand the heavy-handed obstacle of the grid Longenecker places in its way. Longenecker’s watercolors reveal his gifts as a painter. Perhaps he could achieve the same in oils if he would give himself the opportunity.

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