The Theater of Abstraction: Patricia Treib at Wallspace
November 1 to December 21, 2013
619 West 27 Street
New York City, 212 594 9478
Like the typographic code of a stenographer, Patricia Treib’s first solo show at Wallspace tempts and enchants with embedded information and a deceptively forthright vernacular. A series of nine oil paintings, two collages, and one pastel drawing exhibit a frugal array of repeating motifs, marks, and shapes. The paintings draw a clear synthesis between the color-as-shape sensibility of late Matisse and the action painting of Pollock, but also plunge right into the ring of contemporary abstraction as exemplified by Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, and Laura Owens.
In her paintings Treib focuses on banal details excised from unnamed historical paintings and unrecognizable close-ups of mechanical devices. The titles allude to time and vestment, reminding us of the performative, ritualistic aspect of painting. In the large canvas Accoutrements (2013), five motifs gambol and fill the space around a central ochre form that reappears in the two smaller collages in the show, The Mobile Sleeve (gray) (2013) and The Mobile Sleeve (green) (2013). This central shape recalls a torn open and flattened paper cup, and looks simultaneously like an opening, the profile of a face, and a fold. Another repeating composition is the enigmatic “glass clock.” In the small pastel Glass Clock (2012), quick lines and dashes flirt with reflective symmetry across a central lavender column. In the large painting Glass Clock (2012), this column is indicated only by a hint of transparency inside a paradoxically dominating beige rectangle that echoes the edges of the canvas, and acts as both foreground and background. As the works shift between transparent and opaque in media, composition, and effect, we feel the difference in their making and scale as we would feel watching a play develop from rehearsal, to opening night, to the last curtain call.
Treib’s marks read as simultaneously improvised and practiced. She works on the floor or a tabletop, and the paint, responsive between the surface of the canvas and the pressure of the brush, bleeds and blots slightly at the edges, recording with expressive exactitude the process of its making. The paint is thinned to the consistency of buttermilk, and her bright and pure colors become either faint or enlivened through their transparency to the off-white ground. Many of the works hover near the scale of a human body, which redoubles the sense that Treib is choreographing us alongside her. Using brushes that are unabashedly as large as a palm is wide, each of her gestures is made visible; gliding, then halting, the brushstrokes recount a hand eliding (and an arm sweeping) over the surface. Within the shapes and striped swaths, a lightning-bright line registers brief pauses and shifts, giving subtle dimensionality to what could be a flat shape. In some compositions such as Camera (II) (2013), Device (2013), and Cuff (2012), we confront a dark or black glyph, enhancing the flow of a measure, like musical notation, and redirecting the speed of our eye, like punctuation.
Treib’s compositions seldom exceed the edges of the canvas, so while the paintings are intrinsically painterly, they also resonate with the cropping and indexical characteristics of photography, and the close-up details of her source material. As our gaze follows the path of a brushstroke, we feel that we are seeing the afterimage of a long looking, like light streaks visible in an extended exposure. While the entire compositions and their parts are easy to grasp at a glance, each shape contains a detailed record of the timing and movement of its making.
It’s clear that Treib is composing with the hard-won ease of rigorous practice. Whether the weight of meaning lies in the act of looking or execution is a circular conversation. The painted forms, so discrete and specific as to be characters, shift in and out of legibility, and up and down on the register of “complete.” The repetition in compositional structure between works only increases our awareness of a language and grammar underlying the spontaneity, a visual vernacular in use and embodied, which, we too, could grasp—with long enough study—but never replicate, or translate, with such grace.