Louis B. James | February 7 – March 20, 2016
In 1962, the American film critic and painter Manny Farber remarked that the idea of a painting as an “expensive hunk of well-regulated area both logical and magical, sits heavily over the talent of every modern painter.” In the half century since Farber’s critique, the grip of this idea has hardly loosened. New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz recently lamented on Instagram that the work of “crapola artist” Adrian Ghenie sold at Sotheby’s London for “$3.1 million,” stating that Ghenie was “just another artist who makes art that looks like other art that art collectors buy because it looks like what other art collectors buy!” Saltz later apologized and corrected his mistake—the painting sold for $4.1 million.
However frustrating the art market, it’s useful to remember that most artists make work that doesn’t sell, or at least not for much. Many of them simply fail to produce expensive hunks, but others find liberation and pleasure in shirking the baroque stupidity of the market in favor of more serious painterly study. Nora Griffin’s solo exhibition, Modern Love, at Louis B. James contained eight works (all 2016) that display a willingness to veer away from the easy sell. Kamikaze Harlequin, for example, a painting with a preponderance of convulsive yellow, is incoherent, disparate. A camouflage-patterned zigzag, a wide brush stroke of turquoise, a black and white detail from Edouard Manet’s The Fifer (1866), and marks of purple, red, and blue paint don’t offer a respite from the yellow, but an intensification of it.
The painting is self-contradictory. The seemingly haphazard placement of the abstract and representational elements is belied by the studied finish of the painting as a whole. Both the yellow ground and colored splotches are applied in flat, even layers that point toward careful planning. The disparate elements share a two-dimensional surface like images on the atom-thin plane of a computer screen. As if to subvert this flatness, Griffin integrates the wooden frame, enveloping it in the same skull-shaking yellow as the surface.
Other works in the show recombine the same elements more harmoniously. In Laight Street her visual vocabulary of brush strokes, splotches, and zigzags is grounded on un-primed linen. Oil from the paint leaches onto the raw linen, creating an echo of the camouflage motif. In Material World the zigzag is reconfigured as a crown, evoking Jean-Michel Basquiat. Other elements, especially those in 1982, conjure the work of Keith Haring. Her work can embody the same manic, joyous energy as the work of those artists—the same sense of marginalia overtaking some unseen center. Pop, art history, and popular culture all meld together in her paintings. Just as Kamikaze Harlequin contained the rather serious reference to Manet, Sci Fi Scorpio contains a black and white image of a young Bob Dylan.
While her paintings are laden with references to the history of painting, they’re porous to the world around them. Titles like Laight Street might resonate with personal meaning for the New York-born artist, but they could just as easily reference one of the early hubs of painting culture in TriBeCa. The date mentioned by the title 1982 is Griffin’s birth year, but it also marks the introduction of the loft-law in New York. The city itself seems to blur some of the lines between personal experience and the art historical.
In the catalogue for the show, a photograph of her studio wall displays a different kind of porosity. A black and white reproduction of The Fifer hangs beside text scribed directly onto drywall, an image of Dylan torn from a magazine, and a mandolin. Another image shows her studio wall stained by oily paint, as in Laight Street. For those who have just seen the show, these walls seem like loose studies for her works. They’re full of the same eclecticism that mingles the personal, cultural, and historical in inextricable and fluid ways.