There are countless under-recognized—but nonetheless exceptional—artists working quietly away in our midst here in New York: Nancy Haynes is choice among them. Her recent solo show, anomalies and non-sequiturs, was presented by the rigorous and astute 13 member collective, Regina Rex, in a format that greatly served the work by including selections from different series, going as far back as the 1970s. As one walked through gallery, one witnessed an artist—self taught, remarkably—inventing her own forms and paying homage to her forbearers, all the while conscious of her own status as a woman painter coming up in the male dominated art world of New York in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. On the whole, this show made one think about what it means for a woman of Haynes’s generation to be an abstract painter, and further, to be a contemporary painter ever-concerned with the use and depiction of light in painting.
For example, “photographic memory” (1992) is a photograph of the artist’s bookshelf of feminist texts and criticism made in a differing response to a Vik Muniz photograph of a bookshelf touting the great 20th century thinkers in which there was a troubling absence of women. Then, there were a handful of works from her series, empty narratives: thinly painted oil and enamel rectangles on linen, inspired by the tenebrous, inscrutable graphite drawings of Seurat. Also included were four works from her masterful ma series , which capture light so acutely they achieve a synthetic effect. Finally, at the end of the front gallery was “extrtravagate” (1974), a tiny two-panel work with glow in the dark paint and oil on wood from her pocket paintings series—these works all intimating a relationship to painting as cerebral as it is physical. There is a steady and persistent history shown in which the painter constantly tries to mitigate that cynical distance in contemporary art between surface, stroke, and meaning. More generally, they also capture an overlap between the ways consciousness is built (ie, through repetitive, abstract strokes) and it’s essential impermanence (as meaning dissipates through that abstraction).
On ViewRegina Rex Gallery
March 1 - April 12, 2015
Following the tiny glow in the dark surface of “extrtravagate,” five large glow-in-the-dark canvases hung in the back gallery. This newest body of work, Fugitive Drawings, included a sculpture in the center of the room, “the saint’s lectern” (2015) and worked off of an earlier series, fugitive paintings (1990s), in which the fugitive—in this case meaning “fleeting, transitory, or elusive”—quality of paint is brought forefront. In her earlier fugitive paintings she used oil colors known to change in color over time, such as naples yellow and lead white, allowing the paint’s initial state to escape.
In this case, Haynes uses glow-in-the-dark paint to emphasize this transitional state. The canvases push color towards a third dimension—the space outside the canvas—in the form of light emitted from its surface. This was further enhanced by thin tubes of black lighting that hung from the ceiling above. Taking cues from Francis Picabia and Chris Ofili, each canvas has two graphite drawings layered over one another. The timorous drawings were faithful copies of works by artists and architects she wished to pay homage to, including Henri Matisse, Katsushika Hokusai, George Braque, Lyubov Popova, and of course, the women: Anni Albers, Mary Heilmann, and the architect Anne Tyng—that Anne Tyng worked mostly unacknowledged under Lois Kahn for decades and fathered his illegitimate child is an interesting anecdote.
In the middle of the room stood “the saint’s lectern” (2015), an exact replica of St. Francis’s lectern from Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (c. 1480). To return to Bellini here is to emphasize Haynes’s interest in the use of light in painting, which ultimately supports a greater concern: to test the ability of paint to engender ideas. On top of the desk sat a medium sized, rough-hewn scrap of cullet glass, known as “depression glass” or “uranium glass,” also sitting under a black light lamp. (The glass rock is an analogue to the skull that sits on the lectern of St. Francis, a harbinger of death.) As the name indicates, uranium glass was first made in the Great Depression and emits a toxic green glow due to trace amounts of uranium added before melting. Again, Haynes’s newest iteration of light is fugitive, escaping from the canvas and into this supernatural rock—turning the back room of the gallery into a mad scientist’s lab or architect’s studio.
The mix of historical allusion and the impermanent, synthetic light of the glow-in-the-dark paint drew out such parallel elements from the works in the front room, making the cognizant dialogue with history and hyper-delicate application of paint in past works highly persuasive through their stately installation.
- Ma is Japanese term that roughly translates to “interval” or “negative space” and refers to an imaginary state between being and non-bein
Anna Tome is an Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.