by Tom McGlynn
GALERIE EVA PRESENHUBER | JUNE 23 – JULY 28, 2018
Walking off of Great Jones Street and into Eva Presenhuber’s beautifully proportioned New York space hosting Martha Diamond’s most recent show of paintings, one can figuratively reconstruct the quotidian grandeur of an urban promenade in luscious abstract oils. And when the taller buildings of the city shimmer hotly and frame the peripheral interstices of its balking crowds and stalking loners, late June seems the perfect season for showing these paintings. Cityscapes is far from merely representing the vertical pull and haptic surround of the city which has remained an abiding subject in Diamond’s work, yet there is an undeniable transference of urban pressure and sidewalk sway that repeatedly surfaces in this exhibition.
Just off the street, in the front space of the gallery, are two of Diamond’s most actively abstract paintings from the grouping Blue, White, Yellow, Black and City with Red No. 1 (both 2004) that transition the viewer from outside to inside, from objective city effect to reflective viewing affect. Diamond’s brushwork in both is freely notational, likely the result of years of practicing the art of being wholly in the moment with a gesture. The artist’s authoritative brushwork shares a kindred quality with the likes of Alex Katz (a longtime friend), yet Diamond’s touch is less restrained in its adherence to its subject. There is a certain buttery viscosity in Diamond’s brushstrokes that has the effect of dimming one’s focus at points, as do the slipping changes between blacks and greys in Blue, White, Yellow, Black. These zones of obscurity interplay with more defined black marks which bracket in turn delicate blues and yellows on a primarily white ground. A lush, painterly “falling off” is brought back into structural clarity by a scaffolding of calligraphic, gestural strokes. In this push and pull between focal depth, the internal scale of the rectangle, and compositional unity borne in the expressionist mark, Diamond deeply assimilates the precedent of Willem de Kooning’s bravura, slashing brushstroke. She also deploys, interestingly, something of a painter like Jane Freilicher’s more fastidious representational shorthand. Consequently, these works both extend and retract their energies in a dance between a generosity of space and an exacting of partitions.
In the rear space of the gallery, which has the proportions of a scaled down, white box basilica, Diamond displays a combination of a series of paintings from 2007. These are shown together with some older works that nevertheless play well together, an effect reinforced by the excellent layout of the installation which pairs two primarily monochromatic works on opposite walls with groupings of three to four chromatically varied paintings on the remaining two walls. The area takes on a gently insistent, processional aspect that augments the urban architectural subtext of the show in general.
One particular series of paintings entitled New York with Purple No. 1 thru 3 (1999 – 2000) presents a nondescript, generalized purple tower (which called to mind older Manhattan skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, or 40 Wall Street) held in tense compositional quotation between two more modern rectangular buildings. The resemblance to Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral paintings at differing times of day and optical aspect is inescapable yet this powerful reference does not retract from the freshness of the series. Again it is Diamond’s deft brushwork that animates and makes viscerally present her urban reflections, retrieving the series from simple historical quotation. She temporally transcends and incorporates Monet’s monumental precedent, making it conform to her own interests, like any good, strong poet (or painter) must do.
Each painting in the series is composed of a fractious space of purples, blues, yellows, and blacks that radiate analogically the reflective surfaces of the city environment. In much broader strokes than Monet (and in her divergent choice of a secular subject), Diamond reinvents the architectural series as an abstract and expressionist template for nervous emotion. Yet it is a not quite anxious feeling that she imparts to these works, most likely a result of the sophisticatedly parochial attitude of an inveterate New Yorker (Diamond has maintained a studio on the Bowery since 1969). She readily accepts, in other words, an ever-changing neighborhood almost as naturally as the seasonal churn of spring, summer, fall, and winter. The energies felt in these paintings harken back to another art historical reference: the kinetic abstractions of John Marin’s own exploded views of the city from the early twentieth century. However, Diamond is much less idealistic about New York’s crackling potential, which Marin (and many others) seemed to equate with the potential of Modernism itself. The city is not so much a contemporary metaphor for Diamond as it is a phenomenally present and familiar place, a perhaps more pragmatic aspect that she shares with a painter such as Yvonne Jacquette, who similarly explores the urban environment as expressive locale.
The remaining works in the show offer a glimpse into the artist’s range of subject. The incandescent Bone Fire (1991) is apparently from a memory (many of the artist’s images are drawn from previously internalized impressions, rather than from plein air sketches or from photographic references) of a bonfire celebration she partook in at her longtime friend Peter Schjeldahl’s place in the Catskills. The poetically re-imagined and renamed Bone Fire depicts a vertically rising column of flame that could alternatively represent a fluctuating pillar of fire, a demarcating beacon between two areas of densely painted black and orange “night,” or an illuminated, mystic personage reflected symmetrically in an alchemically-dialectic pool of water. The painting is perhaps the most symbolically charged of the show due to the multivalency of its potential readings combined with Diamond’s moody yet spirited brushwork and chromatic modulation. Its painterly treatment comes the closest of all of the works in the show to channeling early expressionist influence such as the painters Emil Nolde’s or Edvard Munch’s own moody slippages between symbolic imagery, remembered landscapes, and the emotionally charged brushwork that would serve to temporarily fix both of their visionary reveries. One could productively muse upon the fact that the urban dweller’s displacement into a rural environment may have contributed to a more free-ranging expressionism.
The two previously mentioned monochromatic compositions that held opposite walls in the rear gallery are respectively entitled Grisaille Cityscape No. 1 and Grisaille Cityscape No. 2 (both 2007). Unlike some of the artist’s other cityscapes these are not readily identifiable as such. Upon first glance they actually seemed almost more related to nature. At first I imagined a surging geyser or a volcanic eruption in the central image of a black funnel-like mound with grey brushstrokes vertically directed toward the top of the canvas. Another immediate allusion was the columns of light that have become the perennial memorial to the anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. In any case, whether such allusions are accurate or not is probably not as important as the elemental presence these paintings emit. Diamond has worked enthusiastically as a printmaker over the years and these compositions were inspired by a mono-print series. Given this information one might readily see how such an immediate process of developing imagery and then wiping it away might appeal to a light of hand painter such as Diamond. Like Bone Fire, these two paintings escape an easy pictorial read and subsequently the artist’s powerful gestures come more nakedly to the fore while remaining shrouded in symbolic mystery. There’s a lurking romanticism in Diamond’s oeuvre that tempers her ostensibly expressionist method, which lends her work a complexity of emotional registers analogous to city life itself.
TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.