Jeff Bailey Gallery February 11 – March 14, 2009
In her recent exhibition at Jeff Bailey Gallery, Amy Pleasant considers: “How does the act of drawing function in my work? Does the intimacy of the imagery come from the image itself, the scale, or both?” After viewing the work, I would add something about how the image is executed in relation to its scale. The wide variety of mark-making and scale changes in Tight Shot amount to Pleasant’s two-cents in the historical debate over the “what” and the “how”—in other words, form and content—in evoking an emotional response from the viewer.
While Pleasant’s inquiry into form and content is unassuming enough, it recalls a more heated chapter in the complicated history of vanguard art. There was a time when Bertolt Brecht and other cultural theorists denounced what they saw as Georgy Lukács’ reactionary support of realism in the service of the worldwide class struggle. Brecht saw the development of form, of how one paints or draws, as the kind of innovation needed to outflank the conservatism of the controlling elite. Issues now as benign as “abstraction” and “realism” were politicized and fervently fought over. Pleasant’s fight at Jeff Bailey is more congenial, unmotivated by ideology or social revolution, though her interest in the argument underscores its evolution and endurance into the contemporary milieu.
Her investigation is also more personal, motivated by a need to resolve competing forces in her own work: the dialectical energy between painting and drawing; large and small scale; object and idea. The lynchpin of Tight Shot is “Sleeping Head,” a large (13’ x 18’) wall drawing, which depicts the back of a head with a bit of Raymond Pettibon’s agitated graphic sensibility. As a result, the subject’s identity stalls between the generalization of a cartoon and the specificity of a portrait. In each of the show’s works, Pleasant successfully marshals this ambiguity to investigate the single act of a kiss between a couple from a number of physical and psychological angles. These perspectives serve as metaphors of her formal inquiries. The somber palette and atmospheric forms in “The Kiss II” evokes the dreaminess and sadness of a parting kiss of an embracing couple in abstract terms; the colors and the marks feel plaintive even if they don’t literally read that way. Narrative competes with abstraction, metaphor with metonym, toward the eventual consummation of painting and drawing in a single composition.
In “The Shower,” a large painting in the gallery’s office, the equilibrium of the embrace, and its treatment, is broken. Bailey, who has an eye for such details, smartly sets this painting apart from the others. Rain falls on a crouching male figure while the feet of another dangle from a dark, gray cloudlike mass of pigment above. Dashes of oil paint represent rain rather than depict it. Unlike the “Kiss” canvases, “The Shower” privileges drawing and the literal over abstraction. For a moment, “what” takes the lead from “how.” Still, one gets the feeling that Pleasant enjoys a close match too much to keep it that way.
So, is it “what” one paints or “how” one paints that gives a painting meaning? Pleasant would say that this is an oversimplified binary, and that it is in the struggle for resolution that art derives its energy; that art is a manifestation of an investigative process, not a tool to extract a concrete answer. Looking back at Brecht and Lukács, it is hard to believe that the very argument that once set in stone the guidelines for a visual revolution has also, paradoxically, led to Pleasant’s omnivorous artistic explorations.