Ekphrasis: Helene Appel at James Cohan
Helene Appel: Washing at James Cohan Gallery
June 22 to July 27, 2018
291 Grand Street, at Eldridge Street
New York City, jamescohan.com
Spoiler alert: Description of the standout piece in Berlin-based Helene Appel’s second solo show with James Cohan might blow the best thing about this painter’s work for those, like myself, who missed the first and have not been paying attention to this international art star. Upon gravitating towards Blue Net (2018), the largest work in this spare, reductive show, I “realized” that something was protruding from the support, a fine filigree of some kind of mesh or netting. Turning to other works on display – images of, for instance, a puddle with soapy bubbles or of sandy beaches with shell fragments and manmade litter – it became evident that Appel, in fact, depicts various motifs, however much surface increments feel like appropriations of actual matter. Sent back to Blue Net, I realize I’ve been had: It is all just paint.
The ekphrastic moment “suffered” (enjoyed) by this critic won’t, thanks to my reporting it, be your experience, too. For that I’m truly sorry. I’m sure we all recall that ancient Greek who wrote about a bird so taken by the verisimilitude of a bunch of grapes by Zeuxis that, poor thing, she pecks at them. Ornithology for birds, I hear you say, but the headline here is that Cohen pecked.
A subsequent chat with a knowledgeable gallery assistant made me feel a little better about my gullibility. For it transpires that, in addition to painstaking efforts in acrylic and sometimes oils, our trompe l’œilist adds watercolor to selected passages to ever so slightly imply shadow. Ms. Appel has worked hard at her trickery, certainly in the almost 13 foot wide Blue Net. But where do we go, once we’ve gotten what’s going on?
Critical appreciation of Blue Net makes one wonder at the allegiance of this artist born in Karlsruhe in 1976, who studied in Hamburg and London, for the work is in equal measure Brice Marden and Catherine Murphy. Even once we register the skill and patience of their rendering, these loops of netting continue to exalt in their reductive alloverness. It is not a rigid grid, for sure, but a lifelike, arbitrary deposit all the more composed in the casualness of the conveyed heap. But maybe the generational privilege of a younger German painter is to be freed of any implied antimony between Minimalism and Hyperrealism; that at this stage of art history we can have our cake and eat it; that old battles are lost and won. Freed, one might venture, from Fried, because an opposition between absorption of touch and a theatrical demand for attention to the literalness of what is depicted are forcibly dissolved in Appel’s images.
These are highly intelligent paintings, not just in the ways they are learned in art lore, but because they are filled with local and particular decisions that earn respect with time spent with them even after the pecking punch line has been delivered. This has to do with variety of approach from one motif to the next. Blue Net is the tour de force of verisimilitude here. A close second is Shell Pasta (2017), a tiny canvas at three by one and one half inches. Dimensional extremity, in either direction, is perhaps a strategy for Appel to think of herself as respectably conceptual rather than academic in her realism (not – please note – for this critic, but others are concerned by such niceties). Shell Pasta, like her other pasta paintings, is an instance of realism, but not of trompe l’œil: we are impressed, perhaps, but not deceived, as unlike netting, pasta wouldn’t stick like this.
There is actually more to say about scale, in particular its literality. A remarkable fact is the lifelike size of all the things depicted: It is a plausible explanation for the diminutive proportions of Shell Pasta. The implausibility of the spaghetti being anything other than a painting of spaghetti – despite the same care bestowed upon it and its shadows as on the netting and the netting’s shadows – is the stylized way this cluster sits on its expanse of linen.
In the sand paintings things actually get more interesting, from a painterly perspective, by being less literal, in a depictive sense. While the watercolored dunes are quite astounding in the way they seem to take us to an actual beach, almost the way a Daniel Spoerri takes us to someone’s actual lunch, the shells in these beach paintings and other surface incidents are replete with the artist’s almost expressive touch, with delight in materiality divorced from paint’s second life as some depicted corollary. The glints of color in the foamy bubbles in Washing (2018) are an instance of sheer delectation in the overlooked, in what is perhaps something hitherto unrepresented in painting (even though bubbles per se have a rich art history) that brings to mind the quirky mannerist realism of Alexi Worth. The color serves to elicit a sense of bubbles in the round, but they are also abstract in the way they deploy spots of synthetic color across the composition.
The range of modes of realism within this one tight display impresses me, though I can see how to others it might suggest a dissipated outlook—that what I take to be range others might construe as inconsistency. But in terms of intentionality, I get the sense that she is supremely aware of the implications of each stylistic move. The “post peck” experience that keeps me interested in this painter in a way that I’ve never been remotely interested in, say, Glenn Brown or Tauba Auerbach, to both of whom she bears comparison, is that while she depicts banalities, she is not banal in the means of depiction.