Charles Cowles GalleryJune 2004
How do two planes meet? Forget Henny Youngman for a second, this is the kind of question that painters often worry over. Granted it’s an issue that most people today are oblivious to, especially masons, judging from the snaggletooth brick face one sees on any new building. This subject of planes—the transition of form within painting—has been given great and careful consideration by the painter Joanna Pousette-Dart.
This was Pousette-Dart’s first solo show in nearly a decade and it included about a dozen, mostly large and untitled works, painted on canvas covered shaped panels. Typically two cleaver-shaped, curved edged forms were conjoined horizontally at midsection. This immediately established an unconventional major/minor relationship that had the natural organic fusion one finds in a porterhouse steak, where T-bone and tenderloin are inextricably linked. A few of the pairings recalled the art of the Northwest Coast Indians, Chilkat blankets specifically. Quite often the edges of the two main planes ended sharply at pointed tips, which aided the illusion that some of the paintings were physically expanding across the wall. I don’t know Pousette-Dart’s exact rationale for using shaped canvases, but it has nothing to do with the more familiar modernist strategies as explored by artists like Neil Williams or Frank Stella in the mid-sixties. Her approach seems much more intuitive, eccentric, and anti-programmatic.
The dynamic complexity of the two interlocking planes, which were sometimes concave and at other times convex, was further heightened by Pousette-Dart’s gestural overlay. Her most visually interesting paintings were rife with all manner of spatial inversions and strange reversals caused by the deft interweaving of the artist’s taut, lyrical line which often accounted for both volume and contour, as well as open and closed form simultaneously. Pousette-Dart handled the alternately conjunctive/disjunctive clash of oppositional elements in an exact and graceful manner. Although, in some instances, the plow shaped planes overpowered the finer lines.
The guitarist Eric Clapton earned the nickname "Slowhand" because someone once made a contracted pun of "Eric slow-clapping hand," but it stuck because it aptly described his deliberate playing style, which was a studious reworking of bluesman Freddie King’s bends. I heard a young artist call Brice Marden "Slowhand" once, at a time when his gestural lines looked a little flat-footed and lock-stepped at the edges—arch as opposed to airy. In certain passages some of Pousette-Dart’s lines also suffer from a similar "Slowhand" syndrome, perhaps because a difficult stiffness sometimes accompanies such strenuous elegance. I don’t think, like some, they’re necessarily derivative of Marden, but rather late de Kooning, with whom she probably shares a generalized generational interest.
Strangely enough, it’s the sometimes feeble latter-day de Koonings, with their crack ribbon calligraphy and glassy surfaces, that may well prove more influential in the long run than his canonical postwar work. I once heard Marden publicly declare, "When someone wanted to learn how to paint, they went and looked at de Kooning." I’m almost positive that he was referring to the later, Xavier Fourcade-era de Kooning. Who has had a greater influence on today’s few remaining gestural abstract painters, Pollock or de Kooning? If you’re concerned at all with painting, it’s not necessarily a dead debate. Anyone who attended de Kooning’s centennial show at either Gagosian Gallery or Mitchell-Innes & Nash this summer might have given that question some thought even at this late date.
Another striking characteristic of Pousette-Dart’s painting is revealed in her use of color, which achieves a quality of light that is surprisingly not local. New York City light is often described as diffuse and silvery. Pousette-Dart’s paintings emanate a hard light, a relentless, arid light that one might associate with another environment altogether, someplace Western, Iberian, or pseudo-Mediterranean like Fresno. This might stem from the artist’s frequent use of clean, mostly unmodulated, color or the silicate dryness of the acrylic medium itself, but all of the paintings consistently radiate a stark luminosity that is both forceful and unique.
Once again though, it is the interior transitions that are most compelling. Although he’s an altogether different kind of artist, the literary critic Gregory Stephenson once wrote in an article on the darkly apocalyptic and conspiratorial Robert Stone novel Damascus Gate:
The overarching, underlying, interweaving theme is that of vision and division: the universal struggle between the forces of disunity and discord, opposition and conflict, and those promoting attraction and combination, harmony and unity. This struggle takes place at every level: the metaphysical, the historical, the material and the mental, and within each human heart.
Stone’s aesthetic has been categorized as "vitalist," which unfortunately makes me think of survivalist compounds, camouflage, canned tuna, and the Turner Diaries, but I get a strong sense of something direct and vital in Pousette-Dart’s art too. She’s actively engaged in a regenerative, recombinant approach to abstract painting. She’s clearly reconsidering what painting is all about, from the support up, but she’s hasn’t surrendered the pleasurable part of the experience like so many of her contemporaries who began working under a similar premise. Maybe iconoclasm is an inheritable family trait after all?