DAVID ZWIRNER GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 8 – OCTOBER 30
“oxides are basic to all worlds”
Suzan Frecon’s exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery is composed of two-panel paintings nine feet high generously spaced around a large room and a second room of smaller scaled works. Frecon’s panels are situated above and below one another, rather than the more common lateral configuration, and for the most part they are working off the same compositional structure.
Enter the main gallery on a sunny day, and light is pouring in from the overhead skylight, bouncing around on the paintings’ finely articulated surfaces. There are forms rendered in high gloss next to areas of severe matte. It’s clear that Frecon spends time honing the plane, working the paint until its degree of reflectivity is perfectly pitched to contrast an adjacent area. The effect is to create a radical separation of forms within the planar surface that sets them into spatial relation with one another.
Frecon maintains that one of her primary influences is the Pomo basket maker, Mary Benson. The feel of the soft round forms emerging from those memories echo in her work today; her amorphous forms are then set in tension within an exquisitely refined plane. Yet, what Frecon’s work contains is not to be seen. It’s through the experience of looking that they gain their significance.
In “soforouge,” (2009) light is reflecting off the lower oval form as if it were a body, an orb floating in a timeless void. As the light cascades across its surface and is caught in the subtle grooves of a brushstroke, it renders the curved edge a three-dimensional form. From across the room the resulting perspective is akin to that from an orbiting vehicle looking down on Mars, while the colors and purely elemental aspects of her materials feel ancient. Even a slight movement in the angle of perception will cause the light to disappear or the highlight to shift to another part of the orb, changing its appearance. A shift that is also a catharsis to understand vision as a glimpse, it’s as if insight comes at intervals without warning or duration, the spaces in between incalculable.
The timeframe opened up by this contrast brings to mind Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and its relationship to ancient earth forms that can really only be seen from above, such as the Nasca lines in Peru. Frecon’s perspective on time recalls painting’s ancient origin, and the centuries of communication that are deeply embedded in our consciousness, informing the way we perceive.
In “soforouge”’s lower canvas, the field of red above the floating orb is of a completely different reflectivity, stopping the bounce of light when it meets an edge. Further down this same edge, where the forms meet the corners of the painting, the distinction between the two all but disappears in a monochrome field. In the upper canvas the relationship of reflectivity and absorption appears to be the inverse of the one below, as if each canvas demarcates a field where different rules apply.
While “soforouge” works off reflectivity to bring about distinctions, in “pompeiian persian,” (2010) a series of brown and red-brown tones initiate a play between their darker/lighter, redder/browner aspects until a complex field of relations is built up between two simple forms above and below each other. As the sun comes out from behind a cloud and streams though the skylit ceiling of the gallery, the colors liven. Their deep richness engenders a resonance or vibration that fills the room, letting the color predominate and take the composition into another dimension. The depth they create for being essentially uninflected forms speaks to the importance of the material. Frecon makes all her own paint. The haematite and various oxides of her red pigments come from the soil. The feeling they give through her forms is chthonic.
The weight and density of these works gives pause. They carry a deep historical memory in their materials and forms, and yet the surfaces, active as they are, constantly acknowledge the urgency of the present moment. Again, the slightest change in light or angle of movement and the coordinates shift, giving another view, creating another depth. It’s almost as if each surface is opening and closing like the iris of the eye, allowing differing amounts of light to illuminate different quarters. When at a particular oblique angle, a view of the painting emerges that was nowhere visible when previously encountered, one thing shifts and brings something else to the fore.
In “cathedral series, variation 5 (closer)” (2009), two forms occupy the upper register, squeezed into each other and the sides of the canvas. A play of red and brown hovers over the blue and green, whose forms resemble the lower registers of the other paintings in the room. The references to sky and earth are clear, but they don’t dominate the reading of the painting and force it into a single referent. Frecon’s shapes, too, teeter on the edge of being, coming close to being nameable, but hovering just on the other side of language in a world of perceptual becoming. Her forms betray their elemental nature when one attempts to call them figures, which they resist through their lack of definition, as if the set of qualities they embody is not yet fully habitable.
In the upper canvas of “cathedral series, variation 5 (closer),” the tension along a painted edge, which in other works often appears primitive or effortless, is laden here. The matte color above has absorbed the oil from the glossy surface below, creating a kind of halo around the form that brings forth an awareness of the properties of the materials. The ultramarine field below is alternately lighter or darker, causing the eye to shimmy across its glossed surface punctuating a palpable depth in relationship to the paint’s translucency.
A haptic world opens up with Frecon’s work. It’s not so much what things look like—that’s been pared down so as not to interfere—but how they feel. The lower acrid green in this painting is balanced perfectly with the placid blue above, the warmth and coolness of its oppositional pitch calibrated to move out from the paintings’ surface into the room. You want to touch it, not for a tactile experience, but to respond to its radiance, a quality we associate with being alive. This degree of comfort and sensual satiety, without excess or abandon, generates a need to respond.
More restrained in its presence is “cathedral series, variation 6” (2010). Here the ultramarine is densely painted, very little light emerges from its under layers. Its three areas of blue, two forms and one void, are painted in varying degrees of darkness. There is a sharp, thin void between the two upper forms that pierces the blue as it separates them. Light reflects off the uneven surface, matching the value of the lighter matte green ground above and gives the division between these forms both a topological presence as well as one defined by a shift in color. The paint, where it trails off, is nearly imperceptible, a whisper, made as it is between the layers and strokes that comprise its edge. At the same time the contrast between the matte and shiny surface is so extreme here, its edges feel as if cut by a blade.
In the presence of Frecon’s works one is reminded that there are many ways of working with paint. The multiple aspects of her surfaces open up the dimensionality of the medium as a shared experience: so much depends on what the perceiver brings to it. In enabling the possibility that in each case the experience is something unique, Frecon proposes painting as a fluctuating and attenuated field whose movement is found beyond the frame. By allowing that to appear self-evident, she is able to leave her audience, comfortably, without fixity in a time of utmost uncertainty.
In a far west room of the gallery there are a number of smaller canvases installed. “cathedral series, variation 7” (2010) is a gem. Its three blues play off one another, creating a harmony that drives the painting’s force field out from the center towards the edges. Frecon’s reached the stage where she’s reduced her palette to a few key colors; they circulate through her work in various combinations and variations of themselves. Here the translucent luminosity of the blues stands in sharp contrast to the density with which many of the larger pieces in the exhibition have been painted. The painting’s aura is strangely Middle Eastern, as if it belonged in the private meditation rooms of Rumi, who could translate its pleasures into a timeless reflection.
With both the breadth of her vision and the facility of her touch Frecon’s new work at the Zwirner Gallery is an occasion to celebrate.
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.