Richmond Burton at Cheim & Read through October 23 (547 W 25 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 242 7727)
Hunt Slonem: Recent Work at Marlborough Chelsea through October 23 (211 West 19 Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, 212 463 8634)
Reed Danzinger at McKenzie Fine Art through October 9 (511 W 25 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 989 5467)
The phrase “mystical decoration,” by no means a perjorative, can be used to link painters as diverse as Hunt Slonem, with his expansive, whimsical and diffuse paintings of birds, butterflies and saints, and Richmond Burton, whose eye-candy abstraction probes a tantric psychedelia at the heart of organic systems and repeating patterns. This month and next painting that’s sumptuous in unabashedly pretty effect but nonetheless spiritually edifying in intention and power holds sway in other galleries, too: Robert Kushner’s flower paintings on sliding Japanese doors at DC Moore, also qualify under this rubric. And Caio Fonseca, who will show next month at Paul Kasmin, taps a similar aesthetic of decentered design and whimsical arabesque, although occult origins are unlikely in his case. While all these artists are happy to tease the viewer with an element of campness, what is more compelling and intriguing about them is that they usually back away from overt irony.
Despite marked differences in temper and taste, there are suprising commonalities between Mr. Burton and Mr. Slonem, in terms of repetition, the grid, and passivity. But then, Mr. Burton has an almost Zelig-like capacity to blend with almost any roster of artists his work brings to mind. Take the five recent paintings in the main gallery at Cheim & Read that reintroduce the grid motif banished from his imagery in the mid-1990s. They relate equally to the tight, obsessively realized pattern making of James Siena and the almost ferociously expressive nested lines of Terry Winters, forming a rare bridge between these disperate artists.
At first, this latest series by Mr. Burton seems a radical departure from the body of work which in previous years had confirmed him as one of the most exuberant and epicurean of abstract painters. Three pieces, created concurrently with the new grid paintings and presented in Cheim & Read’s chapel-like front gallery, recall the boisterous, curvaceous, florally inspired motifs of his “I am” series a few years back: “Solex,” (2003), a five foot square arrangment of three panels, has what can read subjectively as brilliant yellow stamen chased by filiaments of torquoise and purple and hemmed in by radically cropped, pulsating orange leaves. By Mr. Burton’s standards, the images in this room are unusually iconic (as redolent of Georgia O’Keefe as of Lee Krasner with whom his name is often linked.) Although very much in flux, the forms are centered in a way that intimates a bigger order and stasis.
The grids, meanwhile, caught on the diagonal, work in an opposite phenomenological direction, to insist on all-overness and the possibility of endless repetition. Horizontal in format, they intimate vistas, a shift in scale from the microscopic (although that remains a possibility.) They are more muted and restrained in color. But they are a long way from reduction or ubiquity: what actually animates these compositions is a sense of the grid transgressed, that waves of pattern and nascent forms are suggested by the contractions and expansions of this lattice-work. The organic is seen to grow from geometric decay.
The diversity of this show could equally demonstrate restless formal curiosity or a hedging of stylistic bets. A third space reveals yet another line of inquiry: “Freak Out,” (2004) is a confected, densely packed composition of yin-yang and comma motifs. A washed out feeling in the color and surface lends the canvas the remoteness of printed fabric. Like Karin Davie and Bruce Pearson, he is happy to play with connotations of retro décor. You then start to notice similar traits in works that had initially seemed more earnest. “Solex” can’t have been divided into three sections for logistical reasons: the intentionality comes across as a knowing nod in the direction of fin de siecle screens. By signalling applied art and thus playing with received ideas of genre hierarchy, the work retreats from claims to higher authority.
Hunt Slonem is a patrician savant almost in the same class as Francesco Clemente: immensely prolific, beloved in the world of fashion, unfazed by scale, at once fey and egotistical, he is knowingly sparing with his magical touch, seeming to inculcate nonchalence, if not cackhandedness, as an aristocratic virtue.
Mr. Slonem’s work is often impressive even if rarely-in internal formal terms-very satisfying. In a way, his activity is more performative than productive: what we see is painting as verb as much as noun. With each work we have a further installment of a unique personality, rather than a thing in itself.
His virtuoso touch isn’t to do with the loading or inflection of his brush. Actually, and more interestingly, his brilliance has to do with the way repeated forms like the rabbits in the aptly named and subtly punning “Charm,” (2004) poise themselves between expressive naivity and rubberstamp ubiquity. In a work like “Ascension,” (2004) there is almost a child-like glee with which the multicolored, primitive faces fill out the flanking segments of canvas. Similarly, the repetitive, laborious, but ethereally imprecise incisions of line denoting the cage magically animate his surfaces.
At the reception desk of his show at Marlborough Chelsea there’s a press package inches thick of fashion and décor shoots in Mr. Slonem’s grandiose residences, which include his sprawling studio in West Chelsea’s Starret Lehigh Building. One sees immediately that canvases are at the service of ambience, not the other way around.
It may seem unfair to over-interpret the fact that a wall of several dozen Picabia-inspired imaginary portraits of saints looks way more impressive than any single canvas in the melange. And yet, this signals a truth about his more ambitious paintings, including those in the present show: bigger and more is not only better, but essential. And that, of course, is a contradiction in terms: that essence be revealed in overload. Therein lies the mysticism, that when you are dealing with décor rather than image, where lightness of being takes precendence over strength of expression, an aeshetic of accumulation makes more sense than one of clearing away. It is the Zen of more being more.
Apropos of overload, the charming, exquisite, labor intensive, allusion packed, technically exhilerating work of painter Reed Danziger at McKenzie should not be missed. It is true, alas, that she disproves the inverted Miesean aesthetic that serves Hunt Slonem. In her case, moving to a second or third panel (she works her exuberantly miniscule forms in oil, shellac, pigment and other media on paper mounted on board) is like taking another dose of overdose. Caveat emptor- she’s worth a shot.print