Thursday, April 22nd, 2004

Larry Poons at Jacobson Howard Gallery, Robin Richmond at Paul Sharpe Contemporary Art, Eric Holzman at Jason McCoy Gallery

“Larry Poons: Five Decades” at Jacobson Howard Gallery until June 8 (19 E. 76th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212-570-2362)

“Robin Richmond: Sacred Geographies” at Paul Sharpe Contemporary Art until June 5 (86 Walker Street, between Broadway and Lafayette Street, 646-613-1252)

“Eric Holzman: The Sky Is Crying,” at Jason McCoy Gallery until May 31 (41 E. 57th Street, 11th floor, between Madison and Park Avenues, 212-319-1996)

Larry Poons Big Purple 1972 acrylic on canvas, 98 x 92 inches Courtesy Jacobson Howard Gallery
Larry Poons, Big Purple 1972 acrylic on canvas, 98 x 92 inches Courtesy Jacobson Howard Gallery

There is something about impasto, the expressive layering or encrustation of paint, that is indelibly linked in the critical mind with romanticism, or with its twentieth-century derivative, expressionism. Larry Poons, however, is an artist who overturns any preconceived idea about impasto that aligns the device to emotional investment.

The compact overview of his oeuvre at Jacobson Howard stretches from the mid-1960s to last year and covers a gamut of surfaces from crystalline opticality to visceral tacility, from the transparent to the opaque. In following his career via these pictures, the imagination travels from outer space to the earth’s core.

You don’t think about the medium for a second when you look at “Stewball,” (1967): Paint is a vehicle that carries the eye to color esspressimo.. Chromatically close calibrated balls and ovals bounce around within a field of luxuriant, saturated red. The scale of the painting (it’s over ten feet high) keeps you far back enough from noticing the weave of the canvas, let alone any paint application.
All that seems to change overnight with “Big Purple” (1972), a gushing, dripping, painterly splurge. Paint has been put down with joyous abandon, yet miraculously the color is not muddied. Where Jackson Pollock painted with a stick straight from the bucket, his latter-day disciple dispensed with the stick even.

To achieve such melding and meshing of bright, contrastive color – scalding oranges and yellows in the foreground with succulent striations of lilac higher up – you’d imagine the artist must be in league with the devil. There is none of the murk or gloom that occurs when color is left to its own devices in such volcanic eruptions.

Mr. Poons has always had a penchant for quirky color. His works of the 1960s had an almost Pop brashness, and the 1970s were marked by funkiness. But by the late 1980s, the time of the two paintings that dominate this show, “Merton Eaves” (1988) and “Smith Train” (1991), Mr. Poons had entered what can be described as a jewel-encrusted bog.

The orgasm of “Big Purple” is over, and as Cicero said, every animal is sad after sex. The extreme hapticity makes you feel you are groveling in some kind of cavern. But as soon as the eye adjusts to the new light conditions, melancholy disperses. These are still as much about color as they are about texture or tone; there is still food for the retina.

These 1980s paintings envelope you in their vulgarity. The surfaces, built not just of hubristic heaps of pigment but padded out with found and sculpted objects, are liable to disgust viewers with the ambiguity of their otherness. But they excite just when they repel, in a way that aligns this scion of polite, refined post-painterly abstraction to the brash neo-expressionists upcoming at the time of these works.

But, then, some of his erstwhile 1960s peers went the same way, most noticeably Jules Olitski, whose glutinous glittered impasto of the 1980s was the harbinger of a full-blown neo-romanticism.

Robin Richmond Estuary, Chatham Massachusetts 2003 oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches Courtesy Paul Sharpe Gallery
Robin Richmond, Estuary, Chatham Massachusetts 2003 oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches Courtesy Paul Sharpe Gallery

The first impression made by Robin Richmond’s paintings at Paul Sharpe’s homey TriBeCa loft gallery is of an improbable collaboration between Mr. Poons, say, and a neolithic cave painter. The rawness of the loft space accentuates this association.

Ms. Richmond is a painter whose meanderings into the twilight zone between color and texture inspire an oxymoronic reaction: glowing gloom. Initially, these seem like strangely murky creations, but – as with a 1980s Poons – the eye needs to adjust. A better way to describe the experience would be that of entering a gloomily lit church to discover a luminous fresco lurking in a corner chapel.

The metaphor is doubly apt in this artist’s case. Ms. Richmond, a London-based American painter, is the author of a series of books on Renaissance painters for young readers. She has been “on the road” for the last two years, traveling in India, Italy, and America, and the show has something of a travelogue quality, with quotes of Piero and Indian miniatures creeping through the collage- and skein-encrusted surfaces.

Sometimes this gives the viewer the magical feel of making a fleeting, momentary discovery. The biggest find from Ms. Richmond’s travels, however, seems to be the sensibility she picked up from her decades in England: Her spatial and chromatic ambiguities are redolent of the St. Ives artists and their romantic fusion of landscape and abstraction.

Eric Holzman The Sky is Crying 2003-04 further details to follow
Eric Holzman, The Sky is Crying 2003-04 further details to follow

“All art is at once surface and symbol,” Oscar Wilde warned in the preface to Dorian Gray. In Eric Holzman’s mesmerizing but enigmatic exhibition at Jason McCoy you penetrate either at your peril. The artist has given this show, his third at the gallery, the fey, wistful title, “The Sky Is Crying,” which is also used for several paintings. His favorite motif is the nebulous space between clusters of trees.

Quoting Wilde seems apt in Mr. Holzman’s case, as he seems at first like a symbolist who has accidentally strayed into the wrong century. It is as if he were Gustave Moreau trying his hand at abstract expressionism. The paintings have a scale, decenteredness, and fascination with spatial ambiguity that makes them contemporary, but the tone, touch, and mood are very much “fin d’un autre si├Ęcle.” The charcoal grid still visible in his large painting compositions recalls the functionality of Old Master drawings, but also gives his endeavor a 1970s serial edge.

Mr. Holzman’s beautiful painthandling is a kind of fool’s gold. He enjoys the swirling arabesque sensations to be found in van Gogh but replaces that artist’s compelling gestalt and dynamic color with a twee tonality and distended alloverness. Mr. Holzman’s palette, at once earthy and ethereal, has a warmth that puts you in a nostalgic mood. His impasto, in which tumult is depleted of angst, belies a rococo sensibility.

Yet there is much more to these strangely compelling images than retro whimsicality. There is an element of a lament for painting that recalls the more gutsy but similarly elegiac French artist, Gerard Garouste. The big, washed-out landscapes in the back room look like Correggio drawings that have been left out in the rain.

There’s a scene in a Fellini movie where visitors to the Catacombs chance upon long lost Roman murals that disappear the instant they are unveiled. In similar fashion, Mr. Holzman revels in the sensation of chancing upon a long-lost masterpiece at the frustrating yet exquisite moment of dissipation.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 22, 2004