NANCY MARGOLIS GALLERY | JANUARY 15 – FEBRUARY 14, 2015
Recently graduated from Columbia’s illustrious M.F.A. program, Heidi Howard has made a suite of beautiful, delicate paintings for her first solo show at Nancy Margolis Gallery. Her pictures are deeply embedded in the tradition of Western portraiture, and her biggest influence is apparent throughout the show: the Nabis. She paints her friends, herself, and her family, seeking to capture physical likeness and that more intangible beast, personality, with her unique sense of color and an original use of pattern.
Like Édouard Vuillard, Howard uses pattern to articulate form. In her portrait of “Peter Clough” (all works 2014), we see multiple versions of her red-headed friend. Each Peter wears patterned clothing, and Howard has lavished attention on his outfits. By making small marks in a contained area, Howard achieves the flickering effect so common to Vuillard’s work. Blue dabs of paint coalesce to depict a fully-buttoned collar shirt, a trapezoid of pink cheetah print define his boxers, and multiple “X”s interspersed with lines create a “onesie” that hugs his body. The unique patterns Peter wears hint at his personality, which seems gregarious and extroverted.
Howard replicates this flickering effect in “Liz Phillips,” which depicts her mother working in a garden. The garden becomes a pattern of green leaves and red flowers that extends throughout the picture. With this portrait, Howard seems to be reworking and inverting Vuillard’s “Garden at Vaucresson,” one of the Metropolitan Museum’s masterpieces. Like Vuillard’s figure, Howard’s mother wears red and is partially hidden by leaves. Like Vuillard, Howard includes a tree in a central portion of the composition.
In the 14 paintings on view, Howard refers to but distances herself from the Nabi painters by separating the sitter from his or her environment. Rarely is a figure firmly in a recognizable space or location. Vuillard’s interiors were equally important as his portraits of his mother and sisters: he repeatedly juxtaposed striped wallpaper against patterned clothing and fabric. Howard’s early, awkward paintings articulate her friends’ surroundings just as clearly as the figures occupying them. She posed them in homes, coffee shops, kitchens. So why has Howard let go of environment in her recent work?
The elimination of recognizable, three-dimensional space flattens the picture plane and shifts attention to Howard’s figures, which she handles differently than clothing. Reminiscent of Matisse, Howard uses a thin, mellifluous line to evoke an entire personality with the barest and most essential of marks. She gracefully outlines the unclothed portions of her figures—their faces, their hands, their feet, their hair. Howard cannot help but refer to her predecessors with every mark. Her emphasis on line differentiates her from many of the towering contemporary figure painters who rely on blocks and bleeds of color to create articulated faces (Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig, Elizabeth Peyton). By not making fully rendered figures with skin tone, Howard keeps her paintings open and confident. She primes her paintings with rabbit skin glue (an old technique), then stains her surfaces with dry pigment so that the entire canvas remains luminous and full of variegated color, not dissimilar from Rothko’s paintings.
When she does represent her sitter’s setting, it is a vague, dreamlike space into which she melds the figure. In a number of pictures, Howard overlays the figure directly onto a background image. In “Anna Glantz,” the subject, her cat, along with some plants, are superimposed on top of a romantic landscape of gently undulating hills behind a lake. The pattern of Anna’s tank top competes for meaning: its blue and purple hatching simultaneously represents ripples on a lake and horizontal threadlines. This dual reference flattens the picture plane, so that all of her marks, even the ones suggesting depth, sit on the surface of the canvas.
In another departure from the Nabis, Howard has included text in some of her pictures. In the top right quadrant of “Liz Phillips,” she has painted “47K63.” Undoubtedly this string of text carries some personal meaning for the artist, but it does not enhance the picture for the viewer. Including text in figurative painting is tricky business, for it risks relegating painting to illustration. Howard does not include text with consistent mastery. Where she includes generic text like “mother” or references to Instagram handles or Facebook, Howard actually threatens the lyricism so pervasive in her images. Only in one painting does her text complement her image. In “Patrice Washington,” the subject’s sweater seems to be made of paper towels, replete with “BOUNTY” markings.
On the whole, Howard’s paintings are beautiful and tasteful, albeit in a conservative, recognizable way. She is an emerging artist who does not paint with forced naivety or faux innocence. Her paintings accomplish exactly what they set out to do: capture likeness with her own unique mark, one that borrows heavily from her Western predecessors.
KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.