Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

Stanley Spencer: Drawings and Painting; Languor: A Group Show Curated by Kevin Wixted; Night New York

Stanley Spencer: Drawings and Painting
CDS Gallery until July 27
76 East 79 Street, 212 772 9555

Languor: A Group Show Curated by Kevin Wixted
Lohin-Geduld Gallery until July 17
531 West 25th Street, 212 675 2656

Night New York
Elizabeth Harris Gallery until July 23
529 West 20 Street, 212 463 9666

This article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 24, 2004

Stanley Spencer Study of an Actor c.1923-25 Pencil on paper, 13-3/4 x 9-3/4 inches  Courtesy CDS Gallery, New York
Stanley Spencer, Study of an Actor c.1923-25 Pencil on paper, 13-3/4 x 9-3/4 inches Courtesy CDS Gallery, New York

Before Lucian Freud there was Stanley Spencer, one of the most important English artists of the twentieth century and perhaps the most original anywhere. Look at any one of Spencer’s paintings from life-any nude, any portrait- and you recognize Freud’s derivations. His figures add little to Spencer’s lead beyond the physical weight of pigment. Of the two, Spencer was the more daring and inventive.

And he had a beautiful hand, on view at CDS in an intimate gem of an exhibition. The first show of his work in New York in over a decade, it offers 25 drawings, mostly studies from the 1920s to the ’50s. Attendance is obligatory. But do not come looking for color. There is only a single painting here: “King’s Cookham Rise,” (1947) a backyard view on loan from the Metropolitan. The exhibition hinges on the grace of Mr. Spencer’s line and the fertile wit and ambition of his compositions.

He drew contours with a fluid, unhesitating line resembling a stone cutter’s. It is fitting that sculptor Eric Gill, Spencer’s contemporary, counted him among the giants. There is surprising little pentimenti even in studies for complex arrangements. Every lovely mark is an ordered choice, confident in advance of its share of space on the page. Intuition of such caliber is impossible without mastery over the rythmic organization of masses and the language of graphite.

As much a Victorian child as D.H. Lawrence, Spencer enjoyed tweaking proprieties. A study for “The Last Day ” c. 1947, has men carrying women upsidedown by their ankles, knickers in the air. A delicious page of riffs on Leda and the swan puts Leda on her back, one stocking still on, with the swan bracing himself with webbed feet on just that spot where her garters should be.

Pay special attention to the intelligence and empathy of the portraits. His drawing of Mrs. Slessor is Holbeinesque in simplicity. In “Study of An Actor” (c. 1923) the planes of the face in profile-a draughtsman’s forte-are etched with rare surety and delicacy.

Barbara Grossman Finale 2003-04 oil on linen, 48 x 42 inches Courtesy Lohin-Geduld Gallery
Barbara Grossman, Finale 2003-04 oil on linen, 48 x 42 inches Courtesy Lohin-Geduld Gallery

That phrase “curated by” is too stiff for this lively, eclectic show. Painter Kevin Wixted assembled a small group of friends and collegues and hung a party on Lohin- Geldud’s wall. As in any gathering, some guests are better company than others. It is the conversation between painters that keeps things going here. A vivacious trio, Barbara Grossman, Peter Hristoff and Stephanie McMahon accompany each other with brio.

All color, pattern and light, Ms. Grossman’s two figurative interiors complement each other in mood, the soothing cool of one answering the coloristic heat of the other. Both echo Matisse’s early years in Nice: languid women arranged amid ornamental motifs. Mr. Hristoff’s abstract works combine thin films of paint over a silkscreen base. His process yields subtle textures and dynamic designs. Ms. McMahon’s jubilant abstractions on large shaped panels go straight for the eyeballs.

Gene Baldini’s narrative rondels lead down a dark fairy tale path. “Capalbio” (2003) suggests an animal-no, bird-fable. “Allegory on Spring” (2004) hints at danger lurking. Like early editions of the Brothers Grimm, neither painting is aimed at children but both recollect the classic caution against speaking to strangers.

It is delightful to find a gallery that displays fabric art alongside painting. If only Judy Stevens’ yarn hangings were more interesting or coherent. Between them, knitting and crochet offer a palette of over 1,500 stitches. She relies on one or two in free-form sections that invoke the spaced-out days of macram‚. A Mon Tricot Sampler would be more interesting.

Alex Katz Rollins and John, details to follow
Alex Katz Rollins and John, details to follow

Elizabeth Harris closes the season with a lively sampler of New York nightscapes by 16 painters and photographers from galleries around town.

Ron Milewicz brings to his nocturne high pictorial agility and interpretive finesse. “Blackout” (2004), created for this show, views the Manhattan skyline from an industrial lot in Long Island City. Its pitch-perfect color and clever use of lateral perspective knock the lights out. One painting that holds its own against it is Richard Bosman’s dramatic “Cityscape” (1997-98), anchored by the Twin Towers and their reflection in the East River. The brooding coloration of Mr. Bosman’s skyline supports the elegaic quality history has lent it.

Yvonne Jacquette’s trademark motif is here: “Above times Square” (2003), an intricate composition rendered with a slight unsteadiness that suits the dizzying vantage point. Alex Katz cheats a bit on the theme but he is allowed. His “Rollins and John” (1981), a double head-shot, frames one man against a darkened window. Christine Ray’s off-beat take on a blackened subway entrance has a stark chill that feels just right. Doug Martin’s “Night Pearl” (2003) provides a graceful study of darkened buildings lit from below by unseen streetlights.

Simon Gaon’s rollicking “Times Square Night” (1998) seems oddly quaint. Times Square has straightened up since Mr. Gaon set it rocking. Paul Chojnowski’s scorched drawing “Twilight in the City” (2003) is burned into wet paper with a torch. An unsettling image sugggesting conflagration, it is eerily beautiful. “Frozen Brooklyn” (2004) is Daina Higgins’ hieratic treatment of a desolate Williamsburg street. Ms. Higgins sprays paint through a series of stencils over each color area, eliminating brush marks. If the process is tedious, the result is elegant.

Among photographers, Peter Henrick’s luminous c-print mounted on aluminum distinguishes itself by its painterliness. A square format enhances the abstract loveliness of spare builidings framing a clear sky just before nightfall.