Formalism collided with felicity in several recent Chelsea shows. Candy colors abounded, lending a mood of force-fed optimism to the larger project of serious painting.
Willful foppery is the working philosophy of Parisian abstractionist Bernard Frize, a veteran star of the Euro art circuit. He made his impressive U.S. debut at Cohan Leslie and Browne. It's just the second show mounted at this ambitious new 3,800-square-foot gallery on 10th Avenue, founded by former Matthew Marks directors Leslie Cohan and Andrew Leslie with Sydney-based art dealer Martin Browne.
Frize is a rococo Postminimalist. Mixing wet-into-wet, he applies broad brushstrokes of transparent confectionary color across glassy white grounds. The motifs look like rainbows braided into ropes. The paint reads tactile, but remains closed to touch. That's typical of the odd chilly sensuality of Frize's process-driven program.
At 303, Sue Williams also used large-scale white backgrounds to effect. Her trademark brushstrokes, chromatic and gracefully curvilinear, have become singular iconic images, layered one on top of another. Williams began her career as a wry feminist, working with clunky cartoon-like figurative images and texts. More recently, she could be seen co-opting late de Kooning, morphing her trademark sexual imagery into elegant gestural strands of red, blue and pink lines that were reminiscent of the famed Ab-Ex abstractionist.
In this show, Williams has gone fully abstract (albeit with plenty of subliminal readings of genitalia). The paintings have the look of full risk-taking: stroke, drip, splash, no chance for correction. But it's something of a Protestant bacchanalia -- chaste self-restraint is played against gestural permissiveness.
The gesso-as-king school continued at Casey Kaplan on West 14th Street, where yet a third white-ground abstract painter was featured. Tennessee native Pamela Fraser had a fine outing in her third New York solo show. Her gouache Color Field paintings had the immaterial grace of watercolors on paper. She renders geometric motifs as one stain stacked upon another into totemic columns (think Polly Apfelbaum raised off the floor). Fraser makes her painting process look so easy, so philosophically carefree, that it must somehow be terribly difficult.
Another stain-happy youngster, Jonathan Newman, made his solo debut at Fredericks Freiser Gallery on West 22nd. Only he makes figurative work. He renders scenes of sexual couplings in thin acrylic paint poured onto bare drop cloths, so that the color bleeds through -- and that reverse side is what is exhibited to viewers. Helen Frankenthaler's signature automatist process is turned anthropomorphic, by a dirty-minded boy. Hooray for historical deconstruction.
Mary Weatherford's paintings of the early 1990s helped usher in today's renewed interest in 1960s Color Field (her earlier works neatly combined stained canvas grounds with photo-silkscreened images of flowers). Now Weatherford has moved from New York City to Southern California and she has reinvented herself as a landscape painter. In her show at Debs & Co., she used thin washes of matte water-based flashe color to render beachscapes, incorporating actual seashells, dried starfish, and large sponges as assemblage elements. Yves Klein meets Alex Katz in a moody never-never land. This is "California dreaming" seen through a downbeat New Yorker's jaundiced eyes.
Another 1990s powerhouse abstractionist, Suzanne McClelland, titled her recent show at Paul Kasmin "Out of Character." It's a pun on the fact that her work has always been word-based, blown up letter forms becoming a kind of expressionist calligraphic mark. Now, she's employing more specific narrative: these works are based on videotaped conversations between mothers and their teenage daughters. The colors are jauntier than in the past and the paintings are veering toward representations of vast interior spaces. It's content from the Lifetime cable channel presented à la Lee Krasner.
Leave it to Matthew Marks to land the biggest vanity show in town, the paintings of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, playing for one week only in November at the gallery's 24th Street space. Carrying on in the tradition of songster/brush wielders Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, McCarthy's cheerful brushy expressionist figurative works are updated with their references to Francesco Clemente and -- dare I say -- Elizabeth Peyton! An exquisitely awful exhibition. (A monograph has been produced by Bulfinch Press and sales of editioned lithographs benefited the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Garland Appeal.)
Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang, at Max Protetch, continues to demonstrate strikingly individualistic form. Trained in oil technique at the Socialist Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, he co-founded the avant-garde "Current of Life" movement in 1985. His new paintings, which use members of his family as models, present heads floating open-eyed and cerebral on gauzy gray grounds. They are full of inquisitive wonder.
Speaking of wonder, how about that terrific painting of Coney Island's Wonder Wheel by William Steiger at Margaret Thatcher Projects? Stripping down illustrational convention to bare bones black-on-white form, Steiger presents a weblike lattice of metal forms. Like Robert Moskowitz, Steiger takes specific objects -- bridges, airplanes, zeppelins -- and turns them into formalist armatures of positive and negative space. Unlike Moskowitz, perspectival space remains intact. A crisply executed show with pictorial panache.
A more techie and futurist vision of contemporary reality is found in the works of Jeremy Adams. At George Billis Gallery, Adams' photo-based abstractions looked more concise than in previous outings. Adams picks up on the legacy of the later work of 1980s Postmodernist painter Jack Goldstein (who remains missing in action, but never forgotten). Complex scientific imaging systems are played against the more conventional geometry of the rectilinear picture plane. Adams work is the visual equivalent of DJ-remixed electronica music, eclectic "samples" cast against each other to meld a common groove.
Lastly, Kenny Schachter's "Rove" project of big-bang group shows hosted in temporary locations has now been running for ten years strong. His latest effort, "Full Serve," occupies a scruffy garage space on West 27th Street (and can be visited at mixedgreens.com and RoveTV.net). Rove's context isn't just for emerging artists anymore. Big names also benefit from the reverse-chic of the freestyle mix: Lisa Ruyter, Cecily Brown, Rob Pruitt, Christian Schumann -- even Fairfield Porter. But Schachter's still got a good eye for emerging talent. Strong paintings by Lawrence Seward, Graham Gillmore, John Kelsey, Richard Woods, James A. Brown, Ruth Root proved this once again.
JOHN ZINSSER is a New York artist and writer.
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