“James Hyde” at Brent Sikkema until February 5 (530 W 22 Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-929-2262).
“Suzanne Caporael” at Greenberg Van Doren Gallery until February 12 (730 Fifth Ave at 57th Street, 212-445-0444).
“Graham Parks” at Feigen Contemporary until February 19 (535 W 20th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-929-0500).
It seems to be widely assumed that questions about the language of art reached a dead-end at some point in the 1970s, after which anything but structural issues were up for grabs. A number of contemporary artists have put paid to this notion, however, with work that reopens the file on art and language but without reverting to the arid, somewhat pompous posturing typical of the decade when semiotics dominated the way artists thought about, talked about, and made art.
Once again painters are questioning the rudiments of their art — treating brushstrokes, say, or paint itself, or the support, to a kind of linguistic analysis —without becoming reductive or theoretical. They are engaged in what you might call semiotics without tears: Self-consciously laying bare the building blocks of pictorial syntax in ways that actually encourage poetic whim and painterly delectation. This has been true in past work of three artists I admire who are each subject to solo exhibitions right now: James Hyde, Suzanne Caporael, and Graham Parks.
Mr. Hyde is up front about his conceptual intentions and approaches them with insistently good cheer. In some works in his current show at Brent Sikkema, he actually incorporates pieces of parquet and what look like toy bricks — as if to literalize the metaphor of the building block (one piece is actually called “Paragraph” to enforce the linguistic connection). This would have tied in very neatly with the work the other two artists presented in their immediate previous exhibitions at their same current galleries — Greenberg Van Doren and Feigen respectively — but as it happens, each has moved on to less overtly structuralist, relatively personal and expressive bodies of work.
In 2003 Ms. Carporael exhibited a series titled “Littoral Drift,” which represented named estuaries from around the world. She took her cue from John Stilgoe’s book, “Shallow Water Dictionary” (1990). Inspired by the way the author interconnected etymology, natural history, and personal observation, she sought an equivalent in a systematically pared-down range of colors and a set of shapes that, although subjective, had the feeling of being determined by some concrete, empirical measure.
The new body of work, in a show called “Reading Time,” is more diffuse in genre and style, with literal, immediately legible imagery: figures, buildings, trees, sunsets. Though there is more gutsy painthandling, restraint is still her hallmark. She retains her essential, most delectable characteristic: a kind of dispassionate intensity. She crafts grounds that are deliciously slippery (they read more like glassine paper than linen, lending them a slick, designer quality.) Her colors are often teasingly ambiguous in temperature.
Ms. Carporael is conscious of mark the way the best modern poets are of words. Every one she makes seems deliberate and examined, without becoming precious or ponderous in the process.
You could say, actually, that brushstroke has taken over the role played by shape in the “Littoral Drift” show. Sometimes, the artist constructs the image out of lush horizontal strokes in almost caricatural fashion, as in “434 (armless man in green sweater)” (2004) or in various striated cityscapes. Images of a sunset, a tree in bloom, a snowstorm, or a Parisian park recall, in the almost mosaic-like application of individual brushstroke-tesserae, such disparate sources as Nicolas de Stael, Klimt, Alex Katz, and Cézanne.
The strongest images in the current show are the two seascapes where the waves are at once strokes and shapes (the same is true of the snowstorm but the effect there is less taut, more decorative.) In the seascapes, which recall certain Mondrians circa 1909–10, the subject makes depictive sense of the glossy ground. The choppy waves are built up of single-stroke rectangles, hued in a tight range of coolly contrastive blues, purples, mauves, and — inflected by these colors — whites.
The beauty of Ms. Caporael’s waves is that density and direction alone establish dynamic, while the brushstrokes, individual in color, character, and shape, remain inviolate (at once signifier and signified, in structuralist parlance). Works of contained passion, these pictures are, in a profound sense, composed.
Graham Parks’s last show at Feigen marked an extraordinary debut, and not just as a Cinderella tale of the arthandler — at the gallery that now represents him — made good. With small, quirky, graphic designerish paintings of delicate poise and precision, he seemed to have hit upon the painterly equivalent of a haiku: poetry that derives from its opposite, the prosaic. By choosing as his motif functionalist architecture at once bland and utopian, he seemed to strike a miraculous balance between image and means.
His new show continues to tease out the unpainterliness of his finely honed craft. The pictures, once again, look more like something else, this time woodcuts or — more precisely, as he actually paints on wood and exploits relief techniques — like inked-up blocks themselves. He has turned his back on the city to explore nature, photographing woodlands and parks in his native Spokane , Washington , and in Kyoto , Japan .
The new images bid farewell to the jazzy intervals and perspectival compressions that were the joy of his first show. There are clever things going on, technically and metaphorically, with games of negative and postive, push and pull, remoteness and investment. But with their newfound intricacy, their dense alloverness of foliage, there is a loss in lightness. Mr. Parks’s haikus have become epics. Still, the show suggests an artist of extraordinary potential who is close to finding his form.
Lightness will always be Mr. Hyde’s form. Where both Ms. Caporael and Mr. Parks take finesse to one extreme, Mr. Hyde takes unfinish to the other. He is truly an heir of arte povera, the aesthetics of the artfully down at heel. He is so intimate with the agenda of the French abstract-minimal Support-Surface movement as to be their honorary consul in New York .
This new show puts the brakes (temporary, it is to be hoped) on his recent turn towards sumptuousness, with a renewal of the rough and ready inquisitiveness that marked his debut in the early 1980s. There is no hint of the voluptuous form he had been exploring in the last few shows, where a giant, gallery-sized pillow, filled with newspaper or pumped with air, would support an ethereal, impressionistic painting. Nor do we have his plexiglass vitrines, filled with random-seeming accretions of paint. The new work recalls Richard Tuttle in its precious slightness of means. Painterly gesture is almost absent in this relatively austere body of work.
Although his work is rarely two-dimensional, Mr. Hyde insists painting is indeed his project. And he is no prankster: Within his oddball and quirky means, he explores the most traditional of painterly concerns. In the present show, for instance, this includes light. Surfaces include buckled segments of heavy, plastic sheeting, chromed steel, and vinyl that reflect the viewer, the environment, or found objects in varying intensities. In a departure for Mr. Hyde, a few images use digital prints as supports: One shows a child carrying a torch, upon which a cropping frame of painted masking tape is imposed. It is an enigmatic, and probably not, at the end of the day, terribly profound statement, but it is part and parcel of an inquiry that’s open, liberal, intelligent and fun, and thus welcome on all counts.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 13, 2004print