STEPHEN HARVEY: FLIGHTS
Gallery Schlesinger until December 17 (24 E. 73rd Street, Second Floor, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212-734-3600).
GWEN HARDIE: FACE PAINTINGS 2005
Dinter Fine Art until December 23 (547 W. 27th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-947-2818).
RICHARD WALKER: BEACON ROAD PAINTINGS
Alexandre Gallery until December 30 (41 E. 57th Street, 13th floor, at Madison Avenue, 212-755-2828).
(only Hardie and Harvey sections appeared in print)
Stephen Harvey’s eye is as acrobatic as his lithe models. In elaborately choreographed studio setups, he has nude female figures spread-eagled, tipped, and splayed on lushly animated sheets. Stridently lit, they cavort wildly with their own reflections. When, at times, they seem to fly across the canvas, viewers are left to deduce that the bodies in view are mirror images.
The mirror has been crucial to Mr. Harvey’s work for many years, but it is no longer a visible prop. This makes the suspended limbs in these paintings all the more startling — they throw the viewer into a pleasingly vertiginous, ambiguous space recalling a Tiepolo ceiling. And it is not just the artist’s perspective that has taken a gymnastic turn. The models have given up on the decorous poses familiar in Mr. Harvey’s earlier work, opting instead for corporeally expressive extremes: They lunge where they were once content to lounge.
Smooth flesh and crumpled sheets make for a highly sexed atmosphere, yet a chaste air pervades Mr. Harvey’s show at the intimate Gallery Schlesinger. Apollo, rather than Dionysius, is the presiding deity at what is more of an Olympiad than an orgy. The games these pictures play have to do with perception — nudity and athleticism are a strictly cerebral tease.
Mr. Harvey’s art has evolved within the strictly circumscribed genre of the studio nude. These latest works are unprecedented in his oeuvre in terms of scale, verve, and focus. His palette is a long way from the lugubrious monochrome of his 1990s blue period; he has also shed the almost filigree-like black outlines that used to make his paintings seem like colored-in drawings. The color is now a big-time player in the form of garish crimson, purple, even turquoise sheets against sumptuous glistening flesh.
The paint is swift and fluent in delivery, although there is no attempt to match the expressivity of the poses with painterly gusto or flourishes. Mr. Harvey is an obdurately flat painter, and insists on a democracy of treatment across the pictorial plane. (The exceptions occur in the small, deliciously impastoed untitled canvases.) He does, however, concede, in painterly terms, some differentiation between actual and reflected flesh. In “Nalu” (2005), the curves of a crouching, wisp-waisted model are accentuated almost to the point of chiarascuro; in contrast, there is a subtle dulling of tone and thinning of brush for her mirror-view rear.
Where the big early influence on Mr. Harvey was Paul Georges’s dramatized sense of the studio as locus of voluptuous self-discovery, the new work looks elsewhere. Here are elements of the tightly coded mannerism of Philip Pearlstein and the existential contortionism of Lucian Freud, but unlike these stalwarts of the studio nude, Mr. Harvey demands a degree of balletic dynamism from the model.
Only in two canvases — “Curvatura” and “Halawa I” (both 2004) — is the artist’s presence overt; a pair of feet and a hand, respectively, are spotted on the periphery of these compositions. Otherwise, he is the absent presence for whose benefit the challenging, suggestive poses are struck. Often, narcissistically, the model stares at her reflected self. Sometimes, she is so close to the mirror that her actual and reflected self conjoin, visually, as a single, extended body. In “Curvatura,” there is a disconcerting moment where the reflected head meets a mass of black hair atop the actual body, making her look like a Hans Bellmer doll with the head twisted out of shape.
But the intention doesn’t come across as willfully perverse (at least in the erotic sense). Mr. Harvey’s mannerism makes anatomical sense once you manage to place the figure in real space. He remains a lover of drastic, almost sadistic cropping, but sometimes, as in “Halawa I,” the edge of the canvas has a solidifying force, as if the backward-lolling figure were finding support from the pictorial frame. Rather than ends in themselves, Mr. Harvey’s extreme, forced poses are at the service of perception, forcing painter and viewer alike to confront limbs free of conventional associations and comfortable, gravity-bound familiarity.
Gwen Hardie shares radical cropping and defamiliarization with Mr. Harvey, but her painting occupies a very different place in terms of sensibility and ethic. The Scots artist, who relocated to New York recently, achieved a significant reputation in the U.K. with her ethereal, near-abstract figurative paintings that cited psychoanalysis and Buddhism in their explorations of the self. In recent years, she had exhibited abstract paintings with subtle trompe-l’oeil effects, in which it seemed as if a pointed object were pushing into the back of the canvas to suggest a point where planes diverge. The body is back in her third New York solo show — her first at Dinter Fine Art — though near-abstraction remains the order of the day.
Ms. Hardie’s sumptuously austere selection of three “Face Paintings” blow up isolated, less than obvious intersections of facial features to create an oxymoronic state of intimacy and alienation. “Face 03.24.05” (2005) presents a facial segment from upper lip to nasal tip in a 6-foot-square canvas. Looking at this enigmatic, out of focus image I couldn’t help thinking of Sargent’s portrait of Madame X, misreading the black shadow of nostrils at the top corners of the composition as negative space around shoulders and neck, the lip as the red satin bodice, the crevasse as breasts. The other two canvases are more straightforwardly realistic and legible, and to my eye less interesting, although “Face 11.23.04” which shows the eyes, nose, and brow of the artist, evidently squinting in self-regard, is a serene painterly delight.
The debut New York show of Ms. Hardie’s fellow Scot, Richard Walker, is currently on view at Alexandre Gallery. It is a gem. Mr. Walker recently held a residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Conn. In the months he was there, it seems, he developed an American painting accent. His small, evidently plein-air responses to wintry woods, painted in a deft, fresh hand on masonite, strongly recall Lois Dodd (which is no doubt what alerted him to Mr. Alexandre), Edwin Dickinson, and Alex Katz.
Mr. Walker is known in the U.K. for focused, understated, sparse interiors that recall Hammershøi, Corot, and Menzel, but the new landscapes look to be swifter in both observation and execution. The painter’s loosening up has entailed some bravura touches—joyously spontaneous scumbling, sgraffito, and painterly splurges — without diminishing his calm, thoughtful perceptual acuity.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 8, 2005print