Nancy Haynes: Threshold
Lesley Heller Gallery
November 3 – December 15, 2007
"A painter is a choreographer of space." —Barnett Newman
Hidden away on the third floor apartment on East 92nd Street, Leslie Heller presents various artists in the different rooms of an apartment. There's furniture to sit down on to look at the work, making the scene homey and allowing for an extended gaze. In the dining room Nancy Haynes exhibits four paintings that span a decade.
Haynes' oil paintings, which she refers to as the “scaffold paintings,” are all basically built on the same model. They begin as monochromes. Subsequent coats are painted up to a line or a place near the previous layer’s edge, so that they remain visible only briefly at the boundary of the one covering it. Thus, the architecture of the painting's construction is revealed as it moves in from the edges as a kind of stripe or band splayed out at the ends, which Haynes terms “the parenthesis.” In the center, light filtering through layers of color sets up a deep expanse. When the narrow parenthetical spaces open up and challenge the void created in the central field, each constructs its own brand of volumes, one populous and one not.
One of the most recent works, as well as the largest, is called "Edge Condition" from 2006; its central field is composed mostly of a myriad of overlapping brushstrokes that end bound in dark staccato. Floating around horizontally, vertically, and every which way, these bound ends create distance from any point of orientation as they move towards a condition of weightlessness. There is a sense of imminent breakthrough at the parenthetical edges where a rich bloody red maroon reaches over a flightless gray, itself overlapping a fiery florescent heat that seeps in at the core to give a sense of infinity behind the red earth.
The sharpness of the parenthetical edge gives way to the softness of the field in a way similar to James Turrell's light works. Yet with Haynes it expands inwards from the stretcher bars, then a shifting goes on, repositioning the edge before it breaks away into a definitive otherness.
The flightless gray separator isn't luminous—gray can only be lit, as Wittgenstein has noted in his Remarks on Color. Its deadpan flatness separates the singular luminosity of florescent red from an expanse of an earth blood whose light appears to exist in an ether of another order. These unique substances, fire and earth, set side by side give the sense of careening off into another dimension as one moves from the edges of the canvas towards its center.
As the emotionally loaded volumes of red continue to unfold, a sensation of the collective condition of grief, a "Weltschmerz," spills into the room. Whether or not it touches us personally, it’s a relief, actually, to encounter this subtle acknowledgement of the loss of life on all sides that we are experiencing now in a time of war. It is vital for poets and artists to express what many of us cannot often bear to, for fear that the attendant feelings of impotence will leave us holding the body bag and the ambiguity of responsibility. These paintings aren't for the anxious or wired; they demand and offer a space for reflection, a place you can come back to and always find the same, yet different, as one day is different from the next.
Like many abstract painters of her generation, Haynes seems to be reflecting states of mind or being. There's a depth to her knowing and a precision that carries us into the present. The ambient sounds and the colors in the room fall into a hierarchy in relation to the deepest point on the plane of "Edge Condition." The yellow walls of the gallery read lighter and more lime on this side, while against a signature phosphorescent yellow and gray painting from the 90's across the room, they seem a more orange shade.
"just this", from 1997, is a gray oil wash over an acrylic phosphorescent ground painted on rough linen. The colors are so perfectly set in tension that the yellow doesn't read as “glow in the dark” paint and the surprise is left to be experienced in encountering the work in the privacy of darkness. The nuances of the wash are delicate yet obvious; it looks simple. Two colors, one dragged over the other, yet—as it is in any true dialectic—one thing becomes its opposite. In a few moments the complexities begin to come forward. Minute shadows cast on the surface by the grain of the rough linen appear and then fall in line with the gray wash. Direction emerges; we know left is front and right is back, in a way that’s akin to architectural rendering, where entrance and exit execute a flow that gives life to the void.
Haynes doesn't steer away from confronting the emptiness either, the "not knowing." One feels these pieces have begun with the glimpse of an idea, an idea that then grew in the paint until it emerged as the original intent. It's a long journey up from the sub-basement of consciousness and, with a surety that comes from practice, Haynes constructs the volumes we inhabit here from the thinnest sfumato veils or a dense impasto. Looking at these paintings for a time, one's attention is inevitably drawn inward, stuff comes up from below—tensions, dreams, unresolved meanderings—that then take up the journey where once they were left and in so doing mimic the process the artist has set in motion.
"Ornithology" with its sharp sky blue field raises the question as to whether or not Haynes is making a reference to Barnet Newman's famous line: "Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds." Haynes' parenthetical spaces acknowledge Newman's zip, but whereas Newman creates a clearly iconic figure/ground relationship, Haynes' parenthetical spaces dematerialize as you look at them and then slowly open up voluminously to create a ground/ground relationship.
It's a lot of grounding for one painting to do, especially a sky blue fading from the illusion of white light to a deep hued linen surface. Here the luminosity of the edges is set off against the painted illusion of light. Visible at the edges, the delicate lines as well as the colors of the underpainting, a robin's egg blue and canary yellow, are birdlike in their fineness, and tend toward flight. It's the flatness of the matte gray separator that grounds the ground; darker in some places and lighter in others, it negotiates the interstice as we move in and out of the vast blue. The sensual takes us out of mind, yet to fully grasp what is being offered here, a conscious thought must register that the confrontation of the materialistic and illusionistic aspects of paint are being paired off.
In every case, a deeper look into her work will reveal that Haynes is grappling with the dualities of life and where one goes beyond them. A threshold condition emerges where opposites are played off one another in order to generate the momentum to seek a higher ground. Yet for all that, these are relatively quiet works, which lets us know that Haynes has harnessed the conflict to serve her pictorial ends.
In "With Dharma in Mind" a series of measured vertical strokes make up the central field; moving from burnt sienna to a deep alizarin, they are painted over a gray green ground that's painted over a sharp red orange. Haynes dialectical sensibility extends to her color choices in so far as the complimentary hues work together to set a stunning vibration in motion. Her strokes are dancing and allow our eyes to dance, moving up and down and up and down as we cadence over their irregular ends. There's more movement in this tiny painting than in the larger expanses, which, in this context creates a sensation of compression along with the realization of how that activates what is being compressed. The light is coming from inside the painting, peering in at the corners to illuminate the depths of the central ground.
In "dharma" we can see that Haynes has let go, it's looser and one could even say effortless. It's only when the resulting painterliness looks as if it just happened that the other works begin to appear a bit staged by comparison and we can see how far Haynes has come.
The freedom permitted by the narrow parameters within which she has worked over a longer period of time reveals what Haynes has been aiming for over the past decade. Each piece takes a subtly different position, reveals a distinctly different condition that, as it emerges, distinguishes itself from its neighbors, creating distance and time in the process. As I sat in the room with Haynes' work I was enjoined with the bounty of limitlessness, endless time to write and think and watch as these works continued to unfold in front of me.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.