Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, July 1, 2004
 

 

"Eugène Leroy: Large Watercolors" at Michael Werner Gallery through July 9 (4 East 77th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212 988-1623)

"Christopher Cook: recent graphites on paper and aluminum" at Mary Ryan Gallery through July 2 (24 W 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212 397 0669)


DAVID COHEN

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Eugène Leroy Nu 1980-1985
gouache, chalk, charcoal on paper, 42-1/2 x 29-1/2 inches
Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery
COVER: Nu 1967-1985, same medium and dimensions

Eugène Leroy works his magic slowly. The female nude (his usual subject) lurks among shadows-or at least, that's the way it seems. When the image clicks, there are no shadows, but, contradictory as it may sound, deep space and iconic presence. The nude is both made out of and hemmed in by a sumptuous overload of what read, initially, as gratuitous marks-dabs of pigment upon a heavily encrusted paint surface, or in the case of his charcoal drawings, a group of which are now on show at Michael Werner, scratches, rubbings, and scribbles on the large page.

But as you dwell upon his pictures, which both compel and reward attention, an unexpected economy emerges. The formal elements define something emotionally credible not despite but because of their nebulous, nervous, tenuous qualities.

Leroy, who died in 2000 at the age of 90, was a modern painter with old-fashioned tastes and preoccupations. He was a kind of latter-day Frenhofer, from Balzac's romantic tale of painterly hubris, The Unknown Masterpiece. His touchstones were Rembrandt and Russian icons. He had a strong kinship with Giacometti -in his dogged, studio-bound search for authenticity - but in formal terms he found much that needed working out in Monet and Cézanne.

And yet untimeliness served his reputation well. In the 1980s he forged a belated, international repuation, riding the crest of the neo-expressionist wave; now he seems one of the most substantial and enduring of late Twentieth Century painters of the figure, a distinguished older cousin of the School of London painters, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Lucian Freud.

He often drew a distinction, when talking about his work, between what he termed the painting and the image. This suggests a platonic notion of form-in which image is a priori, its reification inherently compromising-that contradicts the actual experience of his pictures, with their gutsy, expressionistic, tactile application and their fulsome, female presence. His nudes, once they emerge from obscurity and settle into view, actually have a classical roundness that recalls Maillol.

A conceptual separation of vision and execution seems at odds, as I say, with the striving for authenticity and real presence. But actually, a strange, uneasy, yet exhilerating tension between depiction and means makes sense of a dichotomy of seeing and making. He is an artist acutely conscious of boundaries, all the more so when he transgresses them. Often, a richly awkward almost desperate markmaking is needed to denote the body in its physicality and otherness. And yet, for all their dualism, these works have no truck with a classic opposition of figure and ground, which would be a quick fix solution to his painterly dilemmas. His work is a constant struggle between the eye and the hand, rather than some effortless, serene accomodation of one to the other.

This comes out more strongly in his graphic works than his canvases. He is best known for oil paintings of unsettling impasto, where surfaces are heavily invested-literally and metaphorically. Color tentatively glows within a murky bog of pigment. Whereas in slowly accreted surfaces there is a harmony between the pace of facture and perception, in the graphic works, fast marks still make for slow reading. The relative clarity and definition to color and mark alike, and a rich sense of the inherent qualities of medium--gouache and chalk, only serve to heighten the conflicts between sensuality and form, touch and sight, real presence and projection or memory.

Christoper Cook Deja Vu 2004
graphite, resin and oil on coated paper, 28-1/2 x 40-1/4 inches
Courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

It is impossible to imagine Christopher Cook tolerating any lesion, along Eugène Leroy's lines, of image and painting. In the last few years he has worked exclusively in liquid graphite, an unusual concoction of his own devising, exploiting to the full the metaphorical and sensual richness of an extraordinary medium. By turning what in its dry state is the classic tool of drawing into a paint pigment he has created a hybrid medium poised between fixity and flow. Degas's monotypes are brought to mind, along with Walter Sickert and Gerhard Richter, in the whistful, enigmatic set of theater interiors that form his debut New York show at Mary Ryan. In these works, Mr. Cook taps an energizing equilibrium between bravura delivery and the fleeting quality of perception. Like theater at its best, his images are dynamic, fluid, and in-the-moment.

Respected in Britain equally as a painter and a poet, Mr. Cook emerged in the 1980s with somewhat neo-romantic intimist landscapes that devised a private symbolism to deal with both personal and ecological concerns. His experiments with graphite moved forward, exponentially, during a residency in the Eden Project biosphere in Cornwall, once again linking in the artist's mind and practice the precariousness of art and nature.

He is clearly in love with the sheen and smudge of his weirdly at once ethereal and visceral medium. There is a mysterious dichotomy between absence and presence in the work: you sense the artist's touch, acutely, in "Déjà vu," (2004) for instance, where the dance of brush and dab of fingers generate a miraculous depictive equivalence of decorative plasterwork; at the same time, the lack of color and the speed with which you read the image puts you in mind of photography, with its inevitable distance, coolness, impersonality. The play of speeds and temperatures in these images makes them as sophisticated as they are beautiful.

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