Elizabeth Harris Gallery
529 W 20th Street, New York
Through May 27
Abstract-Expressionism is a tough act to revisit; whose gestures today could seem as authoritative—and yet so personally revealing—as Jackson Pollock’s?
Nevertheless “Ab-Ex” continues to be a fertile source for many contemporary painters, among them James Bohary, whose encrusted but quirkily disciplined canvases remind us that good expressionist painting is more than just soul-baring pyrotechnics. The 65-year old painter has been producing his own brand of lushly abstracted images for over thirty years, using brushy strokes and saturated hues suggestive sometimes of Monet’s mellifluous “Water Lilies,” but more often of the rude thrashings of de Kooning. His seventeen paintings currently at Elizabeth Harris show a continuing predilection for the scenery of upstate New York , Puerto Rico, and Newfoundland (though, as always, such specifics must be inferred from the titles, as the paintings evoke poetic rather than topographical spaces.)
Despite the consistency of Mr. Bohary’s themes, his working methods seem grabbed from the air. Viewed up close, his colors jar and dislocate; his strokes, varying from sleek coatings to scattered stabs, serve usually to impart color but at other times to superimpose grids and details. There appear to be no habits or even pre-conceptions of figure/ground relationships or of space, whether intimate or panoramic. By comparison, de Kooning’s conception of space can seem elegantly consistent.
Mr. Bohary’s images, however, have a surprising concreteness. On the whole his compositions expand muscularly against the canvas edges, their rhythms imparting a sense of gravity’s vertical pressure and the resistance of horizontals. His color is non-formulaic, yet specific; some hues turn unexpectedly neutral to make way for others, while others maintain full colorfulness even over huge contrasts of tone. The result is that in a painting like “Cross Country Winter” (2002), a bluish-white horizontal slash at bottom, turning duller and pinker in its upper portion, is enough to convey the ground plane sliding deeply beneath overhanging trees and a remote sky.
Most works here provide fewer toeholds of description. The irregularly drawn grid in “Sid-City” (2005) might denote either buildings or entire city blocks; in either case it provides a foil for the adamant thrusts of color immediately above: a block of neutral off-white propped by a flaming slash of orange, then a glide of scarlet strokes abruptedly halted by two quick stabs of red and yellow. A singularly brilliant white (A cloud? A snow-covered peak?) peers from a higher point made remote by the image’s continuing rhythms. Mr. Bohary’s tireless reworking of the placement and intensity of these forms has conjured a coherent visual event–and the squared, staccato pulses give the impression of “city” in ways that a mere enumeration of detail never could.
As for those exotic-sounding titles, like “Whale-Blow-Outside” and “Ken-Bali”– suffice to say, they offer possibilities instead of explanations. In “Ken-Bali” (2003), color sequences intimate a limpid clearing between a foreground of matted green-blues and more purplish, detailed background masses. A grill-like form might be a structure, while squiggles hint at discrete shrubs. Is “Ken” that bluish mass shifting across the clearing, or the faint outlines of a large face at center? The artist’s gifts as storyteller lie in the pictorial rather than the literal, but such is the eloquence of his constructions that this hardly detracts. Perhaps for the artist, too, the literal identities are fragmentary and elusive.
The buttery, atmospheric passages of some paintings recall the early work of his one-time teacher Philip Guston, but the similarity ends there; Mr. Guston’s paintings from the 50s and 60s seems placid and just slightly insular—a little like navel-contemplation–compared to the younger artist’s hunger for external stimuli and his loathing to stand still. Mr. Bohary’s pursuit of expressionism is neither superficially descriptive nor indulgently mannered—it represents, in short, a new and personal experience. No small achievement, considering its debt to modern America ‘s first, and arguably greatest, indigenous art movement.