David Reed at Max Protetch, Garth Evans at Lori Bookstein, Lisa Hoke at Elizabeth Harris, Alfred Leslie at Allan Stone
“David Reed” at Max Protetch until December 23 (511 W. 22 Street between 10th & 11th Avenues, 212-633-6999).
“Garth Evans, Watercolors” at Lori Bookstein until January 7 (37 W. 57th Street, 212-750-0949).
“Lisa Hoke: The Gravity of Color” at Elizabeth Harris until December 23 (529 W. 20th Street between 10th & 11th Avenues, 212-463-9666).
“Alfred Leslie 1951-1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist” at Allan Stone until December 22 (113 E 90 th Street between Park and Lexington Avneues, 212 987 4997).
David Reed and Garth Evans are improvisors at the top of their form. Where Mr. Evans is like a laid back pianist tinkering away at a set of variations in a warm, quiet bar, Mr. Reed is the last of the big bandsmen, high in style, decibels, and spirits. Mr. Reed is showing new paintings at Max Protetch, Mr. Evans a set of watercolors in the project room at Lori Bookstein—in their different ways they both have us rethinking one of the most cherished dichotomies of the painting phenomenon: transparency versus opaqueness. Each is fascinated by the spatial depths and related emotional resonances of color and materiality. Each uses technique at a high pitch to play depth against surface, closure against ethereality. But the differences between them come down to more than mere mood or means.
Mr. Evans is the more old-fashioned of the two. You can tell right off that he is primarily a sculptor. It is not just because there is always a figure set against a ground (in his case geometric shapes rather than anything anthropomorphic). There’s also an awareness of the expressive value of roughness; although the page is saturated by watercolor used counter-intuitively with almost chalky, pigment-rich earthiness. There’s little instance of the watercolorist’s traditional love of the naked whiteness of the paper, and yet the support has presence: its physicality is played off against the illusion of receding space, achieved with billowing, brooding, pulsating color. The geometric forms have a complexity that subverts the space around them, tucking themselves back and forth within competing picture planes.
Mr. Evans is consumate in his skillful use of the medium and profound in his play with depth and surface, but there is something strong and honest about the use of material; we see through it to form. Mr. Reed, by contrast, is a wizard, a pyrotechnician with paint. He wows and disconcerts with his layering techniques. Where an Evans is spatial, a Reed is spacey. The former is rough on the edges, but you see what you are getting; the latter is silky smooth and slick, reveling in enigma. One is about form, the other style.
With Mr. Reed, the retina feels like its being seduced by a jelly-fish. His complexities of temperature and speed throw the eye about with a tricksiness of baroque proportions. His squiggles manage to recall at once medieval drapery and Bronx graffiti: Martin Schongauer meets Kenny Sharf. Actually, at his best he recalls Sargent in his painterly panache. Where Mr. Evans carves out strong, solid, albeit spatially ambiguous forms, Mr. Reed’s highly energetic, slippery, ethereal squiggles are much more about sensation as an end in itself, about perception than that the perceived. Observers have often remarked how his paint looks photographic. Like a photograph, we see right through the paint to the image it evokes, and yet his image IS the paint—philosophically he is as slippery as his squiggles, which is just the way we like it.
Lisa Hoke has seemed in the past an amusing decorator whose trademark motif would soon exhaust itself. Her installation at Elizabeth Harris puts paid to that: it is good, true and beautiful. She follows on neatly from Mr. Evans and Mr. Reed, not just because of a shared affection for serpentine forms and rich chroma. She has found a strategy to saturate the gaze without teasing the mind. Building effective, rich patterns from banal yet gorgeous means.
She recalls Antonì Gaudi in this regards: as his walls are encrusted with shards of gaudy, glistening ceramic, hers postmodernize the found object while preserving its jouissance with a vocabulary consisting, primarily, of two elements: found paper coffee or soda cups and plastic beakers quarter filled with paint. These are massed to form blocks of color, the cups protruding sculpturally, the beakers swirling into swathes of pure surface. These elements bring to mind the pioneers of painterly digitalism, Seurat and Klimt. She isn’t just about technique and its semiotic implications, however: there is genuine exploration of color sensations—not just chroma but hue. It is a major work that demands return visits to penetrate its depths, and to revel in its surfaces.
Alfred Leslie’s abstraction is the stuff of legend, for it is often told how he turned his back on an accomplished early style to embrace the new perceptual realism of the 1960s, the style for which he is better known. It turns out, as the cache Allan Stone has gathered together at his Upper Eastside Gallery, that he was a highly accomplished if somewhat derivative Abstract Expressionst in the 1950s. The experience of this show is rather like finding a vintage cadillac in a long locked garage: they are as fresh as the day they were painted and roaring to go.
There are undoubtedly strong influences from better known painters like de Kooning and Kline in the way emphatic brushstrokes define structure, chance effects are given full play, and the paint embodies the sensation of flesh, and there is probably some influence from such figures as Al Held and Milton Resnick. But the palette has a panache of its own that belies the existential heaviness of his peers, and the energy is prodigious.
I spoke with him as his show opened about the distance he must feel from his early artistic self. On the contrary, he sees absolute continuity between his charged, loose, gutsy bravura painting and collage of the 1950s and the hermetically tight realism, with its bid to create a contemporary history painting, of the subsequent decades, such as his Caravaggesque series devoted to the death of Frank O’Hara, or the monumental series of full-frontal male and female nudes. He stresses frontality, confrontation and all-overness as the underlying formal continuum.
There is a clue about his impatience with abstraction in the experimental movies he directed, two of which are being screened by Mr. Stone in a special projection room (including “Pull my Daisy” with a script by Jack Kerouac, who narrates). Ms. Leslie’s allegiance was to the avantgarde in its broad manifestation, not towards a specific style or technique.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 16, 2004