New York CityMarlborough Gallery
Schema: World As Diagram
May 11 – August 15, 2023
New York CityBienvenu Steinberg & J
May 4 – June 3, 2023
New York City375 Hudson Street,
Lydia Dona: In The Cave
through March 24, 2024
Lydia Dona creates a painterly feminist parable of Plato’s Cave: across a visceral wonderland of blooming and seething colors in the background, a spider’s web of fragmentary imagery creeps along the foreground. The intrepid viewer can watch the evolution of Dona’s methodology over the past thirty years, in the group show Schema: World as Diagram, and at a survey of work from 2008–2018 in the lobby of 375 Hudson, and recent works on paper at Bienvenu Steinberg & J. Her imagery is a mix of appropriated diagrams, mostly from car repair manuals, but it also incorporates anatomical drawings of human viscera, and sundry tubes and mechanisms. The two sides play back and forth in the classic dichotomy between what we perceive rationally, and the sublime or the horrific; while rapturously colorful, Dona’s cave is a place of both nightmare and pleasure. In the lobby of 375 Hudson (famous in art circles for its long-standing hosting of several Frank Stella paintings) Lydia Dona’s triptych From Heat To Sub-Zero (2008) counterbalances the swirling veins of the marble lobby with the metallic sheen of copper and silver. The machinery she depicts haunts the edges of the three vertical canvases. It consists mostly of connections, clips and tubes servicing enigmatic rotors and transformers. It posits a narrative of efficiency and usefulness, of turning on and maintaining, but remains inexplicable like the machines maintained by the sinister Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine.
Heat To Sub-Zero is a paean to Dona’s old neighborhood of Tribeca. Ravaged by 9/11 and then gentrified (the Sub-Zero), it was a victim of the violence of history and change. The expanses of copper paint turn green with oxidation, and the silver begins to show cracks as the mysterious machinery chugs along. In the horizontal painting Bold Assessments (2018), we see through a filigree of what seems to be air filters, alternators, and radiators into a softly brushed environment of flat umbers and siennas. The vents and tubes of technology narrow into the veins and arteries of an organism. This jumble of lines, which articulates form but never stops being a drawing, serves as a guardrail against the abyss, but at the top of the canvas, several drippy aqua paint bursts overcome the diagram. Bold Assessments (2018) also inserts another visual pun Dona is fond of: the recognizable blue of the painters tape is faithfully rendered, initially fooling the eye into thinking the tape is actually there, and seeming to mask out a region of the canvas’ surface, toying with depth and levels of perception within the picture plane.
At Bienvenu Steinberg & J, a selection of works on paper offers more intimate encounters between the diagram and the ethereal. Still, as in the paintings, the drawing is a filter to be looked through and insistently modulated in our perception, messed with but seemingly never completely overcome. In Untitled, 2022, the red, white, and purple skeins of color burn through the inscrutable collection of cylinders that float at the center of the square paper. The machine is in forest green and dark reds and blacks, and Dona refuses to elaborate on how it inhabits its space. It is unrepentantly flat, fluttering in the space created by the spills, splotches and flows of the unruly colors around it. Similarly, in Untitled, 2023, Dona’s machine seems to be attempting to enforce some kind of structure; mechanical objects of indeterminate purpose are connected by spars and axles that hint at a larger structure and are outfaced by spatters of opaque cadmium yellow, the white lines of the diagram tinted yellow by subsequent brushstrokes. In Dona’s cave, the shadow play on the wall is constantly disrupted by the incomprehensible forces lurking in the depths. The works on paper in Dona’s exhibition at Bienvenu Steinberg & J are a series of studies against the diagrams. Unlike in the wider expanses of the canvas paintings that allow the drawings to claim their own space, here they compete and fall victim to the unconscious.
In a spring and summer of well-deserved visibility for an important painter, Lydia Dona’s third appearance is in a group exhibition curated by Raphael Rubinstein and Heather Bause Rubinstein at Marlborough Gallery. States of Infiltration into the Real, the Lack, the Symbolic, and the Semiotic (1993) seems to appropriate and harness the diagram vocabulary of a theoretical physics textbook. We have two triangles intersecting around the center of the canvas, like an hourglass: the top hazy and filled with forms, the bottom distilled and clear. In the bottom we can recognize arrows, dotted lines, and simple volumes. All this is against an impassive black field, enclosed at top and bottom by a frame of green rectangles. A horizon bisects the canvas just below the midpoint. Across these three shows we can watch the evolution of Dona’s psychic space, from a geometric and scientific hierarchy to a chaotic realm of this mechanical, biomorphic narrative. While the bulwark against the notion of a reality beyond our comprehension (perhaps, even, the thing-in-itself) flexes, grows, and gets knocked down, that unknowable reality remains a place of expressionistic painterliness, a fitting way to depict the horror, pain, and ecstasy we can never fully confront.