Karin Davie at Mary Boone, Pat Steir at Cheim & Read, Pamela Crimmins at Littlejohn Contemporary
Karin Davie until June 25 at Mary Boone, 541 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.
Pat Steir: Moons and a River until May 7 at Cheim & Read, 547 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-242-7727.
Pamela Crimmins: Dreamhouse until May 26 at Littlejohn Contemporary, 41 E. 57th Street, at Madison Avenue, 212- 980-2323.
Karin Davie paints endless loops in more ways than meet the eye. In the best sense of the word, she is a formalist — the plastic fact of what she paints represents a conundrum of painting itself. Her joyfully dumb, intriguingly mesmerizing squiggles fill Mary Boone with visual music.
Ms. Davie’s motif is a thick, confident, lyrical, sausagelike line that changes color with consummate ease and curls up and around itself with voluptuous, serpentine physicality. At first they seem like effortless nursery doodles, until you realize some remarkable technical features.
For one thing, there’s no ground. Without allowing the line to diminish in scale, there is implied recession into deep space; the squiggle disappears to a distant vanishing point. The pace — both that of application and that at which the viewer is meant to look at the lines — is very hard to determine: The whiplash lines are bravura, but at the same time exude luxuriant ease, somewhere between allegro and andante.
Then there is the freshness and verve of her color. You can tell she is painting wet in wet, with wildly different hues keeping company on the same brush. Yet for all her promiscuity with pigment, she doesn’t end up in a mush. On the contrary, there are exhilarating flashes of illumination — a sense, in fact, of brilliant light pouring out of or onto selected passages within the composition.
In the mid-1990s the Canadian-born painter came to prominence as part of a wave of artists who looked with retro nostalgia to the implicit or explicit psychedelia of Op Art, Color Field painting, and 1950s and 1960s interior décor. She was part of a four-person project room display at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998 with Udomsak Krisanamis, Bruce Pearson, and Fred Tomaselli — all artists who could be said to get high on ornament. She was included in group shows with such indicative titles as “Post-Hypnotic,” “Ultra Buzz,” “Hypermental,” and “Ecstasy Shop.”
Her painting is still on cloud nine, but it has gotten used to its own druggy pop referentiality, insisting in its maturity on inherent painterly concerns essentially unchanged since the heady days of (sic) high Modernist abstraction. You could say that her work occupies a kind of aesthetic loop, scrolling back and forth between pop and purity.
This certainly comes across in her “drawings,” which are in the back room. These papardelle-like protruding reliefs are ingeniously torn from single sheets of paper, colored on the reverse with zippers sewn into the exposed edges. Intertwined are shiny sheets of aluminum-like Mylar. Like the paintings, and more so, they are at once tricky and simple essays in critical décor.
For a telling generational comparison with Ms. Davie (b.1965) and her pop-abstract attitude, check out Pat Steir (b.1940), whose “Moons and a River” exhibition ends this weekend at Cheim & Read. They have obvious things in common: Both favor angst-free lyrical abstraction, are open to chance, are unafraid of the decorative, embracing its problematics in a vaguely feminist way, and are sumptuous and sensual. But Ms. Steir is an earnest romantic to the degree that Ms. Davie is a sassy deconstructionist.
In her 26-foot-long “ Blue River ” (2005), Ms. Steir recalls the Color Field stain painter Morris Louis . Yet her palette is at once more naturalist and shrill: The curtain-like “unfurled” forms are bright red and silvery white, bookending the blue “veil” washes to the point, almost, of producing a tricoleur banner. At the same time, her washy, drippy effects are phenomenological to an almost literal extent that would be impossible in Jackson Pollock.
Pollock’s drips, painted on the floor, implied ethereal spatiality; Ms. Steir’s drips evoke rain corroding a surface. Like Degas in front of Monet, we want to turn up our collar. It turns out, though, to be a light shower: “Summer Moon,” (2005) is shamelessly decadent in its Orientalist appeal and lustrous palette of greens and golds, feeling like it wants to decorate the home of a latter-day Freer.
The calendar, if not the weather, tells us it’s time to dig those swimsuits out of the closet. As if in anticipation, the galleries are awash with images of pools. Exhibitions run a gamut, in their response to aqueous movement, from the photorealist paintings of Eric Zener, closing this weekend at Gallery Henoch, to David Hockney’s pool prints of the 1970s, exploring the ripple in all its permutations, opening next week at Mary Ryan. Keeping these latter, perennial classics company on 57 th Street is a remarkable group of photographs by Pamela Crimmins at Littlejohn Contemporary.
In contrast to Mr. Zener, who paints as if he were offering a photograph but primly rations precisely the perceptual quirks the lense would offer up as disturbed water impacts his water-treading supermodel types, Ms. Crimmins offers a kind of painterly photograph, in which the quirks of medium and subject, of perception and reproduction, constantly run into one another in complex cross-currents. From within a pool she photographs the people, furniture, and buildings around its perimeter, enlisting the body of water between herself and her motif as a secondary lens. Sometimes she agitates the water with her flipper to further fragment the field of vision, accenting the edges of her ripples with scorching prisms.
The press release calls her result surreal, and as a modus operandi it does indeed recall André Kertesz’s distortion photographs; her uppercrust Connecticut houses, captured in meltdown, also bring to mind the expressionistic wobble of Soutine, Schiele, and Friedensreich Hundertwasse. But the historical movement that makes more sense is Cubism: Strange perspectives that seem at first like puzzles ultimately follow their own system for seeing the world. Ms. Crimmins’s Archimedesian realization — in, of all places, a suburban swimming pool — is that we are from the water, after all.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 5, 2005