Victor Pesce and William Carroll at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery
January 7 – February 6, 2010
529 West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 463-9666
In the front gallery, oil paintings, a baker’s dozen, by Victor Pesce. In the back gallery, thirty small-scale black and white works, some acrylic on paper, some spray paint on canvas, by William Carroll. Pesce’s oils: all interiors, mostly minimal tabletop still-lives. Carroll’s acrylics: all exteriors, mostly minimal urban landscapes. Dissimilar artists, yet there is a strange resonance created in this intentional pairing by gallery director Miles Manning.
Pesce’s work brings to mind a long list of modern representational painters, and an ambitious catalog essay by Greg Lindquist does an excellent job of discussing the artist’s visual relationship to a good many of them. History and possible influences aside, however, it is the works’ quiet but persistent evocation of the uncanny that is most arresting. Pesce’s paintings are intimate in scale, with the largest only a smidge over 30 by 24 inches and the smallest only 4 by 4 inches. The objects depicted, usually one or two per work, are equally modest: a paper bag, a paintbrush, small bottle, a flower, or a colored block. All muted earth tones, the colors favor olive greens, pale yellows, and forest browns. The paint handling, on the other hand, is immodest in the extreme. Not bombastic by any means, but thick, viscous, and insistent. Take for example the one non-tabletop subject in the exhibit, Open Door, 2009. To describe the image is easy enough: the corner of a room with peach colored walls, a putty olive linoleum floor, maple stained pine molding, a floor board heater in the right corner, and a small square (light switch? thermostat?) just to the right of an open doorway. The door itself, also a shade of putty olive green, has one of those translucent glass panels common to old offices. As with the other works, the paint has a thick physicality that suggests that at least a pound of creamery butter has been added to the medium, absurd a thought as that may be. The physicality of the paint results in a metaphysical that is much harder to put one’s finger on. Perhaps not surprisingly, on this point Morandi’s work is mentioned more than once in the catalog essay almost as a kind of touchstone. Yet Morandi’s focus was the elusive space and persona created by his objects, while Pesce appears to be conjuring something else entirely: a palpable longing for permanence. And it is an effect heightened by the inevitable contrast with the very transitory state of the objects selected – the paper bag, the cut flower, the empty bottle, and the open door. In life, people pass through open doors, see what is on the other side, close and open them. In the Pesce’s Open Door, the door is fully open, the space through the door only blackness, and the viewer can feel on a deeply visceral level how every daub of paint is determined to fix these things, not just on the canvas, but in time.
Time is an important element in William Carroll’s work as well, but from a completely different angle. Diaristic in intent and feeling, the simple black and white paintings – some on canvas, some on paper -document the artist’s long walks across New York’s boroughs. Landmarks and objects are presented only in silhouette, yet they still convey a subtle detail that is specifically urban, and urbane, which any New Yorker will recognize instantly. It is worth noting, however, that while the artist makes dozens of rapid light sketches during his treks, the paintings themselves are decidedly not rendered plein air, but recollections aimed at distilling the experiences of a full day’s travels to a few meaningful marks. Both the canvas and paper works utilize only black, applied in thin layers to a white ground as to produce a palette of grays. With the works on canvas the paint is from spray cans which, after all these years, can now be referred to almost nostalgically as classic graffiti technique – and again familiar to any long time New Yorker. The works on paper use standard acrylic artist’s paint applied in thin, wet layers. The limited mediums, in turn, are used to delineate an equally sparse number of ubanscape elements to great effect. Take, for instance, the acrylic on paper nyc 466, 2009: an arched steel bridge in the background bisects the page as a tug boat in the foreground glides across the water and moves out of the frame on the right. As mentioned, Carroll has applied the acrylic paint in such thin wet on wet washes as to make it respond as if it were watercolor. So as with good watercolor technique, the puddles of pigment and staining are used here to deftly magnify and expand the emotional dimensionality. Somehow, too, there is an undeniable air of not just contemplation, but determination transmitted via the artist’s near ascetic insistence to modulate only the gray scale to indicate distance, material, mass, fluidity, and atmosphere. Indeed, with the works small scale, stripped down palette, and narrative of wandering, one can almost hear the artist urging us to travel light, look, and move on. More to the point, nyc 466, with its tug boat forever in the act of vanishing off the page, is the most literal embodiment of the artist’s overall theme: the intimate dance between experience, the passage of time, and memory.
Pesce freeze’s the moment, Carroll celebrates transience, and the two shows together create a deeply meaningful and thoughtful dialogue.