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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

All Issues
OCT 2015 Issue


On View
Hionas Gallery
September 9 – October 4, 2015
New York

Stephen Maine’s new paintings at Hionas exude a crackling static charge that might jolt even the most jaded of zombie aesthetics into a gritty kind of materialist satori. One could argue the merits of this: if a powerful-enough transcendent hit can revive an exhausted faith in abstraction, does this imply an idealistic renewal or simply the stoic resolve of a conditional belief? The fact that Maine seems reluctant to try to answer these types of philosophical conundrums with his work by focusing primarily on process doesn’t make his efforts less visually ambitious. On the contrary: by simply painting, Maine makes a restrained but compelling case for gestural abstraction’s residual ability to touch a nerve (or a whole set of them)—the gesture and color speak (as much as possible) for themselves.

Stephen Maine, P15-0701, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 80 × 100 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Painters as diverse as Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons might come to mind when bearing witness to Maine’s conditional faith in abstraction. The manipulation and conglomeration of surface effects and implied gnarly relief interacting with highly active color contrasts here seem to refer superficially to the stylistic precedents of Richter’s abstractions and (mid-career) Poons. Yet his gestures maintain an autonomous non-authorship in their mediated, low-tech printmaking technique. These paintings, refreshingly, move into a more contemporary realm of non-decisional gestural abstraction. The sometimes off-registered colors of the works bring to mind Andy Warhol’s industrial painting techniques and the chemical reactions in his “oxidation” series. The artist’s bridging of a painterly formalist critique with a slack objectivity, from Richter to Warhol and back again, undergirds this show in a playful suspension of the often-fraught debate between the dogmatically formal and the informality of associative illusion.

Maine has an obvious formal control over his palette, due to a long-standing investigation of color, translucency, and the influence of color on the virtually shifting tectonics of “painting space” in his previous bodies of work. This is a key to his practice. Color can directly engage the physiological mechanism of the eye while simultaneously initiating a string of associative logic in one’s random memory, and Maine’s paintings approach a critical boiling point at the admixture of optical reaction and the accidental, yet uncannily recognizable gesture. For instance, in the painting titled P15-0720 (2015) one’s field of vision is immediately subsumed within this large (80 × 100) work’s under-saturated yet acidic complementary contrast of red and green. Only after this phenomenal burst does one begin to navigate the various marking of the canvas which can index the rusted scratches of a street dumpster or the overpainted then weathered deck of a fishing trawler. Yet in all of the works in this show Maine’s gestures remain highly ambiguous as to their origins. This ambiguity is augmented by his use of the intermediary mechanisms of painting/printmaking such as, in this instance, a very large insulation-foam “plate” with a scarred and dripped surface upon which the artist effectively monotypes successive pressings of each canvas. This distancing of gesture from the artist’s hand lends the works a machinic quality that, together with his industrially inspired palette, impart the overall feeling of “found” abstractions. With HP15-0602 (2015), in which the dominant gesture resembles an unidentifiable aqueous fluid pressed between scientific glass slides, one gets the impression that these works were both made and found by some non-human entity. Establishing both the artist’s and viewer’s perspectives as alien, a veritable concord of the non-subjective, is quite a tricky feat in our heavily mediated age, artificially comprised, as it typically is, of a zombie-realist type of subjectivity.

The painting entitled P15-0701 (2015), chromatically composed of under-saturated blues, oxide reds, violets, and blacks shows evidence, like most of the other works in this show, of a scarified and stressed surface in shallow relief. There is a density of these gestures orchestrated towards the center of the painting at a bit of a distance from the work’s margins. The edges of the work reveal more of the fluctuating values of blue that make up the under painting. This is another of the larger works in the show that become more enveloping in their scale. There is really no way to reconcile the various drips, tracks, and blobs of the painting into a unified symbolic logic; they are truant in their random symmetries. While this is the case, one’s attention is tensely suspended by a buoyant, centrally emanating and lateral expanse that is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s Number 1a (1948). Like the Pollock, Maine’s painting seems like a skin of sorts, or, more aptly, the self-composed residue of off-hand gestures on a well-used drop cloth. The leveling of the definitions of what constituted a composed “picture” to the less determined plane of process was, after all, Pollock’s most important legacy to an American preoccupation with facture, which Donald Judd famously termed as an art that was “coextensive” with the phenomenal world. Writing in his catalogue notes, Maine seems to reinforce this view of process: “If the paintings are images, then they represent this process as a kind of synecdoche, like “wheels” implies “car.” To extend the analogy, the painterly traction gained by Maine with this show opens up whole new avenues for synecdotal acceleration.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

All Issues