Monet, Lichtenstein, and color in Chelsea

I started off yesterday’s trip to New York on the upper east side where I met a friend for lunch, after which I had intended to see the Julie Mehretu show at the Guggenheim. As I started walking towards the museum, I had a déjà vu moment while thinking about why I don’t get to the Guggenheim very often: I’ve done this before, and it’s closed on Thursdays, the day I’m usually visiting the city. So, no Mehretu (or Kenneth Noland) on this visit.

Fortunately, the Met is exhibiting “Picasso in the Met” just a few blocks away. It’s an exhaustingly huge display of all of the Picasso works within the museum’s collection. Unfortunately, shows like this are usually packed and this one was no exception. More frustrating than just being crowded, though, was the exasperating number of people just moving from painting to painting taking photographs with their cameras… and often with just cell phone cameras! It required much restraint to not scream out, “Look at the painting — it’s right there!” But, I need to get over this particular pecccadillo as it’s not likely to go away and isn’t it snooty of me to tell people how to enjoy their museum experience?

I couldn’t spend that much time at the show because the crowds made lingering at any one piece difficult and because I needed to get down to Chelsea to meet a friend for coffee. So I hoofed it across Central Park to the west side and caught the C train down to 23rd Street. After re-fueling and catching up, I started gallery-going in earnest and there are a several shows worth noting.

First up, on 24th Street at Mike Weiss Gallery is Piet van den Boog (the second time I’ve seen his work at this gallery). Big heads (especially the artist’s) are back, along with large bodies in this visually exciting show. The paintings are large, oil-and-clay-on-acrylic-on-oxidized-steel (mounted on stretcher bars), so each piece has a variety of textures: crumbly clay (part real clay, part trompe l’oeil, I think) on the figure’s body, pleasantly stippled brushstrokes in the flesh (especially in the faces), sketchy acrylic underpaintings, and oxidized black steel backgrounds. Consisting of one intense self portrait and perhaps six or seven showing a woman covered with clay, the show is a metaphorical reference to a scene from a Sylvia Plath book where the narrator is paralyzed with indecision about choosing which fig to eat on a fig tree, and while making up her mind she witnesses the decay of the unchosen figs.

Gagosian‘s two Chelsea galleries both are exhibiting impressive, must-see shows from diverse ends modern art history: Roy Lichtenstein’s pop still lifes on 24th Street and Claude Monet’s late Impressionist work on 21st. The Lichtentstein paintings are completely flat and devoid of visible brushwork, using instead a graphic sensibility, bright primary colors, and high-contrast patterns (stripes or Benday dots) for their visual appeal. Though it’s an impressive show, the still lifes don’t have the narrative interest of his comic paintings or the abstract appeal of his brushstroke pieces. The ones I liked the most were paintings that quoted other figures in art history (is that from a Matisse? is that Leger?). The exhibition includes a handful of very enjoyable sculptures that are like graphic paintings that broke free from the canvas and landed on stilts.

With the Lichtenstein show, the pieces are best seen from a good distance away and there’s not much point in getting up close; this type of work looks about the same in reproduction as it does in the gallery. On the other hand, the Monet show on 21st Street needs to be seen in person. These paintings are, of course, brushstroke intensive and worth getting close to (but not too close! The Gagosian guards are particularly aggressive for this show in keeping people at least a few feet away from the works, which is a shame but probably makes sense for an exhibition like this where the insurance costs must be astronomical!). And as is the case with much of Monet’s work, what you see in a painting depends upon how far away you are from it. Up close, it’s brushstroke, scumbling, and swirls of color. If you squint or step back, though, beautiful snippets of landscape pop into place. Especially exciting are the scenes in the penultimate gallery showing “The Alley of Roses” and “The Japanese Bridge”.

I then headed back up to 27th Street to Sundaram Tagore Gallery and an exhibition of acrylic on fabric over panel paintings by Robert Yasuda. In many of these pieces Yasuda is using what I believe to be interference acrylic paints (I’ve used them as well) that produce a “flip” effect as you view them at different angles with respect to the lighting. From one angle, a paint may appear pinkish but from another it will flip to the complementary green. Multiple sheets of these and regular acrylic, either poured or brushed onto the fabric, produce beautiful fields of color that change as you approach the works. Catch the light one way and you see a beautiful haze of purple streaking across the painting but back up a bit and the purple vanishes. In a few paintings, it appears that instead of the interference effect the artist is adjusting the gloss or reflectivity on the paint, so that for instance a reflective golden yellow blends into a matte yellow backdrop. Fabric is stretched across custom-carved wood panels with organic dimples, protrusions, or nooks that add more intrigue to the composition. Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to capture the visual appearance of these paintings adequately in photographs, so if you want to see them you’ll have to visit the gallery.

Making for a nice comparison with the Yasuda show, McKenzie Fine Art exhibits the work of James Lecce, another artist using acrylics in creative ways to colorful effect. Lecce’s abstract panels consist of multiple layers of acrylic poured under certain artist-defined procedural constraints. The paintings vary between cool, flat color and reflective metallic pigments in biomorphically dimensional abstractions. As with Yasuda, how you catch the light reflecting off the piece changes your perception of lights and darks. I can’t help but think of technique when looking at them and in particular asking questions about how long do those pours take to dry and what happens if you make a mistake? (Working with poured acrylic can be tricky — better get your medium mixed just right and hope you don’t have dust floating around.)

Andy Goldsworthy heads to the city for a nifty show at Galerie Lelong that features several series of photographs documenting patterns of water evaporating on the ground. In one series, a Goldsworthy squiggle appears as a reflection of water painted on the road in between some parked cars. Over time, the scene darkens towards night and the water evaporates so that the patterns begin to fade away. A separate room exhibits a “triptych” of three video projections that show “rain shadows” from various spots in New York: the artist laid down on the sidewalk as it started to rain and then filmed the resulting “shadow” of a dry spot as it changes over time.

Finally, I went to the opening reception for Andrew Jones‘ latest work at George Billis Gallery. This show continues his series of “stoop paintings” that picture the stair railings of (mostly) Greenwich Village in interesting lights and with creative compositions. Even more so than in his last show, these paintings really pop with dimension through control of detail, contrast, and atmospheric perspective. Both the shadows and the lights in these paintings contain variations of color and tone in the brushstroke so that they’re worth looking at up close as well as from across the room. Most of the pieces focus on the “newel”, the post at the end of the stoop on which the handrail swirls to a flourishing finish, though there are a couple with direct-on views of arabesque railing posts that provide a nice semi-abstract variation from the newels.

(After a day full of walking around the galleries (with some very sore feet to show for it — those shoes weren’t as comfy as I thought), I grabbed a quick bite to eat at Rin Thai on 23rd Street between 7th & 8th. I didn’t get to try anything more than my entree (Bamboo Pad Ped, extra spicy), but it was fantastic and wonderfully flavorful (would have been better to share, though).  Recommended if you’re in the area and like Thai food!)

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