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by John Zinsser
|Several recent painting shows openly called into question the distinctions between abstraction and representation.
This tension was apparent in the work of Pat de Groot, whose reductive seascapes were on view at Pat Hearn Gallery on West 22nd Street in Manhattan's Chelsea district. De Groot, who is in her early 70s and lives in Provincetown, Mass., taught herself to paint by sitting at the window of her house during the winter months and depicting the sea on each given day.
The resulting small oil-on-panel works have a spare immediacy, each featuring a centered, flat horizon line. The paint has been applied directly from the tube, sometimes with a palette knife, which gives her pictures a literalness and physicality that defies the illusionism of the natural subject matter.
The strange emotional temperature in de Groot's paintings hovers between Albert Pinkham Ryder and Robert Ryman. Is this naïve "outsider" art? Or is de Groot a late blooming Vija Celmins? Within Hearn's hip context, the artist seemed to lay claim to both.
Hard-core New York abstractionist Winston Roeth -- known for the James Turrell-like luminosity he achieves in his open fields of flat tempera color laid down on honeycomb panel -- had the temerity to use the title "Landscapes" for his recent show at Stark Gallery on West 25th Street. As with de Groot's seascapes, his paintings are organized around a flat horizon line, but that line is determined by two adjoining panels of different colors.
Roeth's format refers to Brice Marden's famous "Grove Group" series of the 1970s, most recently shown at Gagosian's uptown in 1991. For Marden, the artist's experience of time and place is condensed into a language of pure color and geometry. But for Roeth, who employs nonnaturalistic colors like acidic orange, the conception of landscape is decidedly more artificial, more architectural, less about a direct mirroring of nature. ($14,000-$24,000.)
Diti Almog, whose works were on view last month at Marianne Boesky Gallery in SoHo, also plays the game of making paintings that look like hard-edge abstraction but which are actually representational. Starting with basic geometric motifs -- boxes, bars, stripes -- Almog offers multiple views of a single painting as if the viewer is zooming in and out of space. One work zeroes in to show a detail of the last. The next recedes to include the whiteness of the gallery wall as a compositional element.
These discretely scaled and beautifully executed acrylic-on-wood panels present the activity of painting as a means of architectural rendering. Once the viewer becomes aware of the forced shifts of scale, he or she is drawn into a rebus-like game. It's a fun mental exercise, and the longer you look, the more Almog's sly sense of humor reveals itself.
In 1997, the Israeli-born artist made her New York debut at not one but two heavy-hitting galleries simultaneously: Boesky downtown and Mitchell-Innes & Nash uptown. In this follow-up, her inwardly directed project continues to offer up beguiling visual enigmas. (The entire installation of 23 paintings is $60,000; works are also sold in smaller configurations.)
Nearby, at Deitch Projects' just-revamped Wooster Street space, Whitney Biennial darling Ghada Amer further pushed the abstraction/representation envelope with her embroidery-based paintings. The cavernous gallery space -- complete with its goofy neo-fascist wooden viewing platform -- was lined with what looked like bland acrylic Pat Steir knockoffs.
Look closer and you see repeated illustrational vignettes embroidered across the surfaces. One is supposed to read the labor of "women's work" layered on top of abstraction's cultural currency.
Look closer still, and you realize that what's being depicted in the sewn segments are stock pornographic images of various couplings -- read "sexual content." The Cairo-born artist seems to have taken the adage "sex sells" literally, grafting this content on top of the value-added iconography of Post-War abstraction. (Prices range from $1,500 for drawings to $40,000 for a large painting.)
Doug Wada's exhibition at White Columns over in Greenwich Village demonstrated a dry brand of meticulous realism that verged on the Robert Gober-esque. Included in P.S. 1's "Greater New York" show, Wada's to-scale frontal line of school lockers looked right at home in that institutional setting. At White Columns, the lockers again appear, as a repeated module running the length of one wall. Painted in orange, the serial form takes on a post-minimalist look, wryly quoting Donald Judd's industrial sculptural units.
Two other works -- depictions of a louvered air conditioner and a pair of shiny plastic subway seats -- rounded out the installation and expanded its real-world metaphoric readings. Collector interest in Wada's work has been running high (the large locker piece is said to be reserved by an unnamed buyer at $22,000).
Wayne Gonzales' architecturally derived geometric abstraction took center stage at Paula Cooper's strong spring group show (which also featured works by Dan Walsh, Robert Grosvenor, Rita McBride and Roy Lichtenstein). Painted in psychedelic off-kilter hues, Gonzales' grid takes off from an office building façade that appears to have been sliced apart and re-assembled.
Gonzales, a former assistant to Peter Halley, made his debut with the glamorous Lauren Wittels (before marrying her), then had his work featured at Mary Boone Gallery as part of her recent "young gun" self-revitalization program. In Cooper's conceptually driven installation, his painting looked edgier, meaner and more assertive than ever.
Mitchell Algus continues to use his Thompson Street storefront space as a venue for recontextualizing forgotten painters' work within the dialogue of the present. His recent "Reconstructing Abstraction" included works by Gerald Hayes, Judith Murray, Deborah Remington and Ted Stamm. Remington, a staple of the early Bykert Gallery days, looked particularly prescient. Her Memphis (1969), which shows a shiny Corvette Stingray-like shape hovering over a mystically charged field, has the look of a Georgia O'Keeffe updated for the consumer age.
At the other end of the stylistic spectrum stood the constructive minimalism of Stamm, who died young at age 39 in his SoHo studio in 1984, just as his career was starting to receive critical attention. His ZYR-6 (Zephyr Series), a lean, parabolic blade-shaped canvas, neatly adapts a sense of velocity into concrete form.
Pat de Groot at Pat Hearn, 530 West 22nd St., New York, N.Y. 10011.
Winston Roeth at Stark, 555 West 25th St., New York, N.Y. 10001.
Diti Almog at Marianne Boesky, 51 Greene St., New York, N.Y. 10013.
Ghada Amer at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster St., New York, N.Y. 10013.
Doug Wada at White Columns, 320 West 13th St., New York, N.Y. 10014.
"Group Exhibition," Paula Cooper, 534 West 21st St., New York, N.Y. 10011.
"Reconstructing Abstraction," Mitchell Algus, 25 Thompson St., New York, N.Y. 10013.
JOHN ZINSSER is a New York painter and writer.