Criticism
Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Clusterfunk: Six Solo Shows in Two Galleries


Lois Dickson, Elisa Jensen, and Ying Li at The Painting Center
October 28, 2014 – November 22, 2014
547 West 47th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 343 1060

Mary Ijichi, Dan Mills, and Jeffrey Reed at George Billis Gallery
October 28 – November 22, 2014
525 West 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 645 2621

Elisa Jensen, Yellow Skirt, Brooklyn, 2014. Oil on linen, 52 x 78 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Painting Center.

Elisa Jensen, Yellow Skirt, Brooklyn, 2014. Oil on linen, 52 x 78 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Painting Center.

Functioning as pressure valves for excessively solicited curators and dealers, cluster exhibitions — mini-one person shows that offer a third alternative to the expansive solo show and the thematic group show — give artists the benefit of a solo listing, and the sponsoring gallery an efficient scheduling solution. Of the venues I visited one evening this month, the Painting Center managed to squeeze together solo shows by Elisa Jensen, Lois Dickson and Ying Li in their modest space, while the George Billis Gallery offered its own trio of solos with Jeffrey Reed, Mary Ijichi and Dan Mills. Billis’s recently expanded gallery is a welcome improvement for a venue dedicated to providing exposure to a large stable of artists. Lois Dickson’s choice of Elisa Jensen and Ying Li to share the space with her this month is an expression of solidarity among the membership of this long-standing artist-run institution. I wished they all had more space to share.

Elisa Jensen’s work was surprisingly large, having previewed the images online and assumed a scale that would have matched what I know of the space itself. They are urban scenes with a flat, linear quality reminiscent of Ben Shahn. The wall graffiti in Yellow Skirt, Brooklyn (all works 2014, except where noted) shares the same slender calligraphy as the bicycles depicted in several other pictures. By a crude delineating technique, Jensen suspends her imagery between a gritty realism and a self-conscious primitivism that in tandem captures both the solidity and the transient temporality of a cluttered Brooklyn sidewalk.

Lois Dickson, Backstage, 2014. Oil on linen, 50 x 64 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Painting Center.

Lois Dickson, Backstage, 2014. Oil on linen, 50 x 64 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Painting Center.

On the other side of a half wall, Lois Dickson’s abstractions evoked a melding of space and figure one might associate with better examples of allegorical symbolism. Her ability to match a remarkable inventiveness with subtle paint handling is particularly evident in Backstage, a canvas that, frankly, deserved the sort of space Larry Gagosian recently squandered in his uptown digs on the sophomoric maneuvers of Richard Prince. It is a canvas of rare erudition and presence. It alone is worth the trip to this fifth floor roost, high above the gallery district’s hinterlands.

Ying Li, occupying the small chamber (the euphemistically familiar “project” room) to the side of Dickson’s allotment, succeeded in reproducing the charged feeling of a working studio with selections from an extended study of views framed by the square lights of a large, grid-like window. The window is that of a space Li moved into after her husband’s untimely passing. The poignancy of her sharing her partner’s perspective on the city through the same transom is kept silently personal, leaving the viewer with a characteristic maelstrom of multiple views, painted in Li’s fierce, brawling color and seismic texture. And yet the Monet blue of City Series #3: Blue Curtain hints with both delicacy and abandon at the solitude of a podium on an empty stage.

Attuned, I suppose to the square frame of Li’s work, I was drawn immediately, at Billis, to Jeffery Reed’s landscapes. On panels measuring little more than nine by nine inches, Reed proves himself a match to the elusive ambition of his forebears: the depiction of air and light. Refined in the studio from outdoor studies made in Maine, Pennsylvania and Ireland, Reed combines memory and visual notes to produce jewels of form and color, informed by late afternoon cloud patterns, sunlit structures and receding planes — well, let’s face it, the most conventional aspects of landscape painting one could imagine. And yet there is not a hint of pedantic posturing or histrionic calls to tradition. Soft Rain, measuring a mere six by ten inches, is an affirming tour de force of nature seen through a sensibility.

Mary Ijichi, Extrusions #8. String tape and acrylic on Mylar, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and George Billis Gallery.

Mary Ijichi, Extrusions #8. String tape and acrylic on Mylar, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and George Billis Gallery.

Reed’s sturdy reserve proved that he, too, could endure the compression of an undersized-solo-show confederacy. But there was still more to see. A mere head turn and I was presented with Mary Ijichi’s drawings and collages, again of modest scale hovering around sixteen inches, which blend string tape with acrylic paint on Mylar. Quietly contemplative, they mimic the delicacy of Paul Klee but with a different sense of playfulness. Here the focus is on the phenomenology of patterns. The text-oriented pieces place her closer (though not necessarily indebted) to Agnes Martin. They reiterate the accidental texture of a Roman Opalka, yet steer clear of his obsessive density.

Ijichi’selegance compels the observer to locate herself at an optimal viewing distance, which turns out to be rather close and fortunately harmonious with the installation. Intimacy, however, is not an interest shared by Dan Mills, whose very public approach is to apply color to large printed maps by painting over their written information, returning the cartographer’s data exertions back into the drawn and painted renderings that all maps really are. Though most of the work failed to transcend the obvious gimmick, there were notable exceptions: Bleed (52) displays genuine painterly authority, and Outtake A’s (2013) extended strokes offers a winning digression from the motif. They work because they do not rely on their maps per se.

Those of us occupying the lower echelon of art-world actors struggle to resist what often seems like structural hostility toward an art of circumspection. But as the struggle continues I suppose we have to make the most of available opportunities. The organizers of these six exhibitions may not have been able to provide optimal viewing conditions for their artists, but it proved enough.

Ying Li, City Series #3, Blue Curtain; 2014. Oil on panel, 10 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Painting Center.

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Jeffrey Reed, Soft Rain, 2014. Oil on panel, 6 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and George Billis Gallery.

click to enlarge

Dan Mills, Outtake A, 2013. Painting on printed maps on paper, 15 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist and George Billis Gallery.

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