There may be hope: two painting shows in Chelsea
“The whole thing of should I paint or not, is painting dead—of course it’s not.” That is a delightfully dismissive statement by Glenn Brown in an interview in 2009 in Art in America. Of course it’s not. It’s that simple, really, and the two painting shows I saw last weekend in Chelsea are a rousing testimony to the vivacity of oil paint: Glenn Brown at Gagosian, and Hannah van Bart at Marianne Boesky. (Had time permitted, the Maria Lassnig show at PS1 would have completed my art pilgrimage and made a satisfying triumvirate of figurative painters. The Maria Lassnig show is up through September 7th though, so there’s still time).
British painter Glenn Brown says in the press release for the current show at Gagosian, “I like my paintings to have one foot in the grave, to be not quite of this world.” My artistic sensibilities so align with his – the indebtedness to art history, the love of the language of oil paint – that I’m thrilled to have finally gotten to see his work in person. The paintings on view are all oil on panel, and the surfaces are luscious and luminous. Brown revels in all the medium can do; blurred areas of atmospheric calm set off the vigorous dizzying (but controlled) brushwork that tends to be reserved for the central subject of each piece. The paint is applied thinly and methodically. I expected the surfaces to be like Auerbach’s with thick impasto instead of such polished surfaces. As the artist himself said, while he admires de Kooning or Soutine, he paints more slowly, which lends itself to more refined results. Brown traffics in the widely-recognized themes and stories of myth, of the Bible, and of art history, and people relate to it. It’s truly refreshing to think we can all put notions about there being no meta-narratives behind us. His mastery of the medium is exuberant and deeply satisfying on many levels.
The works in the Gagosian show included several bronze and oil painted sculptures, all of which related to the art historical epochs alluded to in the paintings. With titles like “Magdalena Penitente” and “Nazareth” or “Romantic Movement,” the foothold in the artistic achievements of the past is apparent.
Hannah van Bart deals directly with nostalgia and human memory in her work, but in a decidedly different way from Glenn Brown. With a more muted palette, Van Bart uses vintage photos as her source, and alters them with a characteristic nervous line and sensitive brushwork. The images are re-worked numerous times until the original reference is supplanted by the painter’s decisions about the subject’s portrayal. For a glimpse inside her studio in Amsterdam, watch this interview with Hannah Van Bart on 4 Art on Kunstuur from March 2014: 4 Art – Hannah Van Bart.
Van Bart’s portrait exhibition at Marianne Boesky featured approximately 15 paintings (all pictured on the gallery website), all oil on linen. The works included are refreshingly modest in scale and scope. Her paintings have a tactile surface that I find pleasing. It’s nice to see evidence of the human hand’s involvement in the creation of anything, especially since so much imagery we see every day is super-slick and created by the press of a button. Although the brushwork is evident, the surfaces are all rather flat. Despite the use of outline around the figures, there’s a a satisfying interplay between the figure and the ground. With palette choice, patterns, grids, textures, and undoubtedly many other formal concerns that I overlooked, Van Bart uses all the elements of picture-making to connect the space inside the figure to its surrounding areas.
There’s a line in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway that I read years ago while working on my MFA in painting in New York, “Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.” It resonated with me at the time, as I was trying to make big splashy clever paintings. When I see work like Glenn Brown’s, which seems to originate from a sense of enjoyment and intellectual curiosity, or Hannah Van Bart’s, which seems utterly human and self-searching, this quotation springs to mind. Their work is felt. While these two shows both close June 14th, there are a few other choices for happy hopeful art pilgrims. Next up for me will be Maria Lassnig at PS1 (as I already mentioned) and Milton Resnick at Mana Contemporary.