Friday, August 1st, 2003

Helene Slavin

Patricia Correia Gallery
2525 Santa Monica Avenue E2
Santa Monica, California
310 264 1760

July 19 to August 23, 2003

Helene Slavin Evergreens 2003  encaustic, acrylic & oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches This and other image courtesy Patricia Correia Gallery
Helene Slavin, Evergreens 2003 encaustic, acrylic & oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches This and other image courtesy Patricia Correia Gallery

In her eight large paintings on show at Patricia Correiea, Helene Slavin creates instant patina. Looking aged, well-used, as if they’ve been sitting in an attic, her works resemble maps that mischevious schoolchildren have dipped in coffee. Actually, they’re built up from layers of acrylic, encaustic, and oil applied via gesture, splash, and squiggle. They appear aged because Slavin drenches her canvases with mute color.

Colors are on the brink of strident, as if seen through a scrim. Fiery yellow skies, for example, in Evergreens; luminous white in the Vermeer-inspired View of Delft; the yellow-white of the sun or whatever light source it is that illuminates the female in Stephany. With subtly she tones down these colors. Their effect is not acerbic, as in German Expressionism, or incandescent, as in Van Gogh. Rather, the experience is of looking at a faded Gauguin Tahiti painting. Once-lustrous but no longer so, yet with intimations of past lustre.

Slavin works her surfaces to an extraordinary degree. Rather than staining the canvas like Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis, she literally soaks, saturates, tattoos the canvas. They look well-worked like a tapestry, pummeled to good effect. As well as the surface, she applies paint to the flip-side of the canvas where it emerges through the interstices of the linen. Moreover, she singes the surface to melt the wax. Finally, she sands and then varnishes the surface to preserve the poltergeist of the process. Think of a sunset over rubbled Pompeii preserved in ambergris.

Her strategy is at once expressionistic and conceptual. On one level, there is the sense of walking into a well-appointed Victorian reading room and finding a comfortable chair: Comfortable if not nostalgic. By dint of their size, they engulf the viewer. Sparse on detail and long on lyricism, they engage slowly, they simmer, occasionally they percolate. They induce calm, irrespective of subject matter. They are a cocksure paean to technique and virtuosity unmediated by posturing and theory.

The Red Barn 2003 encaustic, acrylic & oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches
The Red Barn 2003 encaustic, acrylic & oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches

By creating work that spans abstraction and figuration and is made with an identical technique, an identical look, an identical resonance, she abolishes historical hierarchies between abstraction and figuration. She renders moot the tension between figuration and abstraction, showing that they are two sides of the same coin, painting. Her work may flirt with abstraction but it does so the way Picasso’s and Braque’s did, where even their most abstract works of Analytical Cubism still maintained a purchase in representation, on tangible reality.

These works suggest the tension that animates painting today is anti-painting. The real distinction is between things that age and those that don’t. Installations, especially; performances; and also, a whole genre of work that escaped commodification, like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Schwitter’s Merzbau, Duchamp’s Fountain. Slavin’s work embodies meanings, to borrow the phrase from Arthur Danto who extended Marcel Duchamp’s conceit of retinal painting. Conceptually, the work poses an unintended homage to painting, to its endurance, its viability, the way the fact of its existence is the subtext behind every painting ever produced (just as every book printed bears some relation to each other).

As with decanted wine, time enhances the works; their implicit longevity, their duration-made-manifest, and their maturation, are in themselves part of their subject. That is painting’s saving grace. All the experiments of the 20th century that changed the nature of painting could not alter one incontrovertible fact: over time paintings (and bronze sculpture) age, they acquire a patina. And perhaps, just perhaps, this patina sustains any aura that was present at its conception. Does video age to good effect before it disintegrates? What about installations and performances, how do they stand the ravages of time?

Slavin’s work shows that one of painting’s perennial themes is the acknowledgement of its own aging. She doesn’t trumpet her genre’s will-to-aura; no, suave and discreet, her work shimmers like a smoggy Milton Avery, premature, old, getting better all the time.