Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc.
524 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
March 27-May 3, 2003
Ena Swansea achieved recognition in 1998-99 for a series of abstract paintings based on observations of lightfall in the landscape. Key to this work was a subtly colorized grisaille palette and layers of transparent paint. The restless gray forms suggested moving shadows and were widely appreciated for their ingenious equation of style and content. Critical response noted that a subtle but recurring theme in the history of painting had resurfaced in a smart new way.
Swansea’s debut exhibition at Klemens Gasser Tanja Grunert currently on view through May 3, 2003 features paintings dating from 1999 – 2003. Introducing figuration and text, it reconfigures Swansea’s repertoire of formal and stylistic elements. Surfaces vary from translucence to opacity or blinding shine on dark grounds; same goes for a few planes of lead-based white. Several of the most optically unconventional paintings start with graphite grounds that subvert color and squelch light altogether. They would seem to spring from unimaginable motives if not for Swansea’s known interest in the painterly paradox shadows represent (as the relative absence of light and color). Formats vary, but at medium to large size (88″ x 108″ the largest) most canvases project an ambitious physicality in the gallery’s skylit space.
The new work experiments with varying degrees and types of illusion and depiction in its figuration process. Swansea compounds the issue with allusions to famous paintings hybridized with portraits of friends and famous painting styles. Models from Manet and Vermeer appear; form-rendering techniques of old masters are used; the flatness of silkscreen and Warholian inversions of value come up (Warhol’s “Shadow Paintings” should perhaps be mentioned in passing). The late Degas has a fleeting presence due to some unusual, theatrical lighting effects and pastel tinted highlights on lips, noses, ears. Swansea’s graphite surfaces perhaps even recall Degas’s metal plate photos of ballet dancers in lurid, chemical reaction-tinged colors. All of this challenges viewers to flex their optic taste buds into new poses.If the first group was derived from the observed landscape, the focus of the present group shifts inward, toward a psychological landscape. In a recent interview with Barry Schwabsky, Swansea reveals that she has been interested in theories of multiple personality, and set herself the challenge of investigating her painterly concerns “from behind”. She found a line in the Frank O’Hara poem In Memory of My Feelings that resonated with the kind of psycho-sexual introspection she was after: “My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.” (The text is stenciled twice on one of the paintings, “Man In It”.) Once one is aware of the O’Hara line, individual figures and pairs of figures on stylistically various paintings seem to interact with or separate from each other, as in a drama with endless episodes. Voices, thoughts, and feelings lie just beyond reach. Swansea is less attracted to multiple personality in the clinical sense than the garden variety neurosis most people experience, say, reading a novel or in dreams. O’Hara’s dreamlike image has this effect, and the author himself is a totem of Ab Ex. The quoted line lends an open conceptual structure, albeit a cryptic one, to the whole show.
Swansea’s interest in grisaille is still important and maintains its engagement with issues particular to abstract painting. But why graphite? Consider again that Swansea is interested in metaphor and working with the theme of multiple personality. As a black pigment, graphite is untrustworthy: dark for sure, but reflective also. Graphite, derived from carbon, is so slippery it’s used in car lubricants. In pencils, it’s ideal for both drawing and writing, activities as prone to erasure as productivity. Graphite facilitates movement of the hand on the page, which comes from thought in the mind. Swansea brings it to the surface, almost as subject matter in itself, an unreliable narrator to the oily brush strokes decription above it. The figures’ schematic mien seems to be an almost involuntary consequence. On the other hand, three paintings on oil-based white grounds show figurative elements fused with white shadow space: losing hold of ego in a camouflaged environment. Swansea suggests that the twilight zone of opticality is analogous to states of mind, awake or asleep, where consciousness and certainty are momentary.
Thus gliding over the slippery surfaces of the grounds, the new paintings’ blend of illustrational style, historical appropriation, petrochemicals, and text is the stylistic equivalent of an unstable psychological realm. Swansea’s first interest is abstraction, so her push of the early grisaille into this new territoryentails a certain amount of risk. From formal, stylistic, and conceptual angles, the new work projects a sense of contingency onto the positivist encounter with each canvas. It’s a good concept, but the outcome looks more often transitional than insightful in this group.
Notes on Individual Paintings
Like the Foreword to a book, the first painting one encounters while walking up the ramp to the gallery is a predominately dark canvas depicting a woman walking from sunlit greenery outdoors toward the dim metallic interior of a passageway. With her conservative attire of shirtwaist dress, purse, and heels, she could be entering a clinic and the gallery simultaneously, like the viewer. We enter the painter’s space together, perhaps.
A horizontally formatted depiction of a conversation between a woman and a man, rendered in transparent colors over a an oily black ground that switches like the nap of shiny velvet as the viewer moves around to see it. The blonde woman, suburbanly coiffed, has just spoken to him. His back is turned, one ear bright pink from the sound of her voice. Two black lines echo between them. Perhaps it’s better that we can’t hear what she said, what he heard, and so on.
Luncheon on the Grass, 2003
A monumental female figure crouches above a mecurial graphite field. She is seen from the back, from a hovering elevation, a schema rendered in close values accented by a few colorized highlights. A big brush describes her hair in burnt sienna, cut with bluish motor oil from certain angles, caught in a ponytail held by red elastic. The brush brakes for a pale ear, strokes the supple back, glides along a downy arm and, upon arriving at the model’s tennis wrist, reduces scale and halts in an attitude of erotic attention while bestowing an expensive watch. This negligent hand holds a picnic plate with a spoon glowing green and red at the edges, extends from the right knee at the end of its luscious long thigh. She is a composite: Manet’s famous nude luncheoner crossed with a friend’s portrait. Painted by multiple personalities or not, a ploy that incompletely masks a trained hand, it’s clear that Swansea takes pleasure in her technical facility.
Lie Down I Think I Want You, 2003
Defying gravity, two torsos stretch, mirror-like, from the left side of the picture field, on a graphite ground. The topmost, wearing a garment that looks most like a green choir robe, seems to scrutinize the other figure inconclusively. Myth like, they suggest Echo and Narcissus.
A single head, a close up three-quarter portrait: set deeply with in close-hued mineral pigments, her white flecked globular eyes suggest a sea bird or mammal blinking miserably after an oil spill.
One painting, not on display but easily taken out of the back, is a white on black homage to Vermeer called The Letter. Swansea crops the young woman’s face close to the dreaded sheet of paper. She, ghostily sketched, is visible thanks to a few deft strokes left by a stiff 3-inch or so brush oozing with white. The brush is negligently, yet specifically, dragged across her forehead and features in distorted perspective. Her ears, having read the letter, are “red”; but she maintains her composure through a new translation of Vermeer’s strategy for concentration. The distinctive pearl drop, tear drop earring on the ear which hears the news dances with antenna-like powers.
Fourth Marriage 3, 2003
At the white end of the spectrum, a little team of fairies dances through the cream blue and yellow shadows of lotus, ginkgo, and champagne-glass shaped flowers – as well as they might in a painting entitled “Fourth Marriage”. The wry humor is upscale: this much paint, cushioned by an oil-rich medium, slathered over the surface like icing on air. Here is an optimism that revels in success, space, and outdoor freedoms. Balanced, optically, to daylight.
Tiny Man, 1999-2003
The confident big brush swings through the model’s coiffure, slips past her face, rustles under her nightgown, and pops out under an evanescent line as the upward gazing face of… a tiny, but mature, conservatively dressed man. Father?
Out of Town Until the 26th, 2003
The hellish mood of a woman lying prone before an array of windows in a recovery clinic on a sunny afternoon is matched by a horizontal void inserted on her couch, as if to suggest that she were tipping into the crack of doom.. Of course, she never does; but the disposition of painterly elements is the more devilish for bubble-gum pink highlights stuck to her chin, lips and nose. Ick! Degas meets Nan Goldin in the glow of ghastly music hall gaslight, in the harshly lit cinder block asylum..
Man In It, 2001-2003
A young woman stands in the petal rich breeze, caught in some puzzle-like grayplanes cutting through the atmosphere. Frank O’Hara’s poem, In Memory of My Feelings, not in pencil but rendered twice: noticeably in hot pink stenciled letters, then again as mild dropped out text (in more austere typography) near the bottom of the image, as if fading away on curved space. The stenciled letters spell out, like an Ouija board: “My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.”