23 East 73 Street, New York
August 6-22, 2003
End of season group shows are a little like summer movies. They have the advantage of setting out simply to please. In a category-loving art climate, the last exhibition usually relaxes the categories. Works tend to be smaller, allowing us to look at art scaled for actual rooms, not museum spaces. Galleries are more willing to chance work they are not committed to. The publicity machine gears down. After months of generating operatic press releases, galleries puts their feet up and let items on the wall summon their own audience.
Fine and surprising things surface in these closing medleys. While this exhibition spares us the artificial labors of a “theme show,” its focus on a single medium-watercolor- provides continuity among the disparate sensibilities and ranges of ambition that are part of its appeal.
Most of the work on show is by members of Zeuxis, a loose affiliation of artists devoted to still life painting. Many of them exhibit regularly in artist-owned and/or university galleries. The better known names-Garth Evans, Andrew Forge, Lois Dodd, Robert DeNiro, Sr.-are on loan from other galleries. Three come from Kouros’ own stable of artists.
Things begin with two paintings by George Constant, an early modernist best known in his lifetime as an etcher and engraver. Here is a rare look at his gifts as an abstract painter and a return to one fecund moment in the history of modern art. Petunias, a 1952 watercolor, offers a bouquet of forms that recall his contemporary, Baziotes. There is something of Sheila Delauney in these shapes as well. Field of Flowers, c. 1960, is a fluid, calligraphic dance of all-over color, dispersed with an energetic and graceful hand. Constant’s approach has its antecedent in Pollock’s Lavender Mist , which itself points back to Monet’s waterlilies. Contrast between figure and ground disappear. We look straight into the surface of a multi-colored field, its elements woven together with delicate strands of black ink.
Immediately opposite, counterposed to Constant, is the vertical Study for Venice with Bridge by watercolorist Jorge Eduardo. The rigor of the study gives a useful clue to the hyper-realism for which Eduardo is celebrated in his native Brazil. He brings the intensity of an archivist’s scrutiny to even the smallest detail. Eduardo has built a career recording Brazil’s loveliest locales and the architecture of its colonial past. Here, he turns his concentration on a typical view of Venice. For all his command of the medium, his affinity for local color and light, and his ease with architectural detail, the painting seems more a scene prepared for tourists than a personal response. Technique can sometimes become a bludgeon that intimidates the audience into confusing a sense of place with mere items in sight.
By contrast, Joseph Byrne’s four diminutive tree studies are lively and personal. They make no claim to be other than what they are: liquid caresses of a tree trunk. One especially delicious rendering recalls John Marin’s warning against reading things into paintings: “There’s the daisy-you don’t rave over or read messages into it. You just look at that bully little flower. That’s enough.” One bully little tree trunk is plenty.
John Goodrich’s high spirited contributions are a surprise. Gone is the broody quality I’ve come to associate with his oil painting. Both still lifes here, attentive to the effects of light and air, have summer written all over them. Other unexpected pleasures are the lush, ebullient landscapes by Carolyn Harris; the startling subtlety of Louise Matthiasdottir’s subdued consideration of the Hudson River, less showy than her usual chromatism but with greater depth; and David Dewey’s darkling portrayal of a Belfast street on the shadow side of sunlight. Ruth Miller is always a happy find.
Phyllis Floyd, founder of Zeuxis, offers lean, reduced figure compositions done on site in Madison and Bryant parks. Victor Pesce’s works, each focusing on a singe object afloat on a field of color, emphasize how much the appeal of his painting resides in his eye for placement, independent of the characteristic weight and texture of his oils. Robert DeNiro, Sr., who died in 1993, is represented by a pleasant, neo-Matissean trifle Teapot and Vase/Flowers. But name recognition lends heft to what is almost a studio throw-away, slight in structure and technique. (Its $16,000 thumb-in-your-eye sticker is an instructive moment in art world pricing.) Nell Blaine’s Darkening Sky, Gloucester, just as pricey, provides more to look at.
I have always enjoyed Andrew Forge’s writing more than his painting. Elegant and spare, his work has struck me as having an air of the podium about it-a distillation of style-conscious theories with little blood in them. Even so, I was drawn to the untitled watercolor submitted here. Discreet, luminous marks, arranged in repetitive, seemingly stenciled rows, drift across the paper. Shifting gossamer planes overlay and penetrate each other, massed in the upper left and sliding, in delicate glissando, toward invisibility at the lower right. It sends me away to rethink my responses to this most refined technician.
One of the true satisfactions here is the opportunity to see Garth Evans. Known most widely as a sculptor, his watercolors are small astonishments. Two of them hang near a window in the upstairs gallery, a turn of the head away from Forge. It is an inspired placement. The works of both men share a similar sense of sequence, of structure arising from spaced intervals-like notes of a musical scale (Forge) or interstices between overlapping geological structures (Evans). Both make the most of transparency while letting color drive their compositions.
Similarities end there but how does one describe the difference? Or the quiet pleasure of Evans’ inventiveness, his lyricism, contained in a geometry of his own devising? This is painting that has to be viewed up close. At a distance, color and outline assert themselves easily. But the magical subtleties of surface and errantry of lines dissolving into worked paper reveal themselves only on close embrace. It is hard not to lean just a little closer to one particularly enigmatic, darksome piece just to kiss it.