Friday, May 26th, 2006

Joseph Marioni at Peter Blum, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe at Gray Kapernekas, Thomas Nozkowski at BravinLee Programs, Steven Mueller at Baumgartner Gallery

Peter Blum until July 1
526 W. 29th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-244-6055

Gray Kapernekas until June 17
526 W. 26th Street, no. 814, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-462-4150

BravinLee programs until June 17
526 W. 26th Street, no. 211, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-462-4404

Baumgartner Gallery until June 7
522 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-242-4514

Joseph Marioni Painting 2006 (installation shot)  acrylic and linen on stretcher, 120 x 132 inches  Courtesy Peter Blum
Joseph Marioni, Painting 2006 (installation shot) acrylic and linen on stretcher, 120 x 132 inches Courtesy Peter Blum

Joseph Marioni is a monochromist who seems to be trying to kick the habit. Each of his paintings resonates to the name of a singular hue. Whenother colors lurk beneath the surface and occasionally peep through it is to be the exception that proves the rule.  The first and last impression is of one color.  At least, that is the way things used to be.

Mr. Marioni works in acrylic, applying thick layers of it to big, often square canvases with a housepainter’s roller. The resulting surfaces, mottled and sticky looking, differentiate him from the legion of monochrome painters who prefer complete impersonality and evenness. And the indulgent richness of Mr. Marioni’s colors in their glistening state separates him from those uncompromising conceptual-minimalists like Alan Charlton, for instance, who favors gray house paint precisely for its anonymity.

Mr. Marioni’s surfaces arouse ambivalent responses. Because of the size and association of his chosen tool, we tend not to think of the brushstrokes as “expressive,” yet painting’s busy edges bristle with personal, local, intuitive decisions. The incremental surfaces may seem arbitrary, but combined with the warmth and specificity of his colors, they induce empathy. The eye wants to linger and involve itself with the complexities of the surface.

His new body of work — the inaugural show in Peter Blum’s new Chelsea gallery space — represents a departure for Mr. Marioni. The typical square has given way to a landscape format. And the hovering background colors, which the final surface all but covers, assert themselves with newfound boldness. Mr. Marioni’s trademark strategy has given way to something altogether more imagistic: The singular, top color is now presented as a shape inhabiting a field defined by another color, which achieves some degree of equality, albeit within a figure-ground relationship.

These new works are all obstinately titled “Painting 2006.” In two of them, tree trunk-like forms fill out their base; colored silvery and pinkish white, respectively, they also resemble sheets hanging out to dry, fluttering against very dark, almost black grounds. Such illusionist readings are abetted by the differing degrees of saturation of the strokes that suggest volume.

These veil-like shapes put me in mind of the poured, stained canvases created in the early 1960s by the Abstract Expressionist Morris Louis. Has Mr. Marioni joined the traditionalist fold? The fact that he has recently found an eloquent champion in the veteran formalist critic Michael Fried — in contrast with his more conceptually oriented followers and collectors in Europe — encourages such an impression — as does the sumptuous, resonant lushness of these works.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Step 2004-5  oil on linen, 70 x 70 inches Courtesy Gray Kapernekas
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Step 2004-5 oil on linen, 70 x 70 inches Courtesy Gray Kapernekas

Although Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, like Mr. Marioni, has emerged in the wake of minimalism, he represents a different tradition of painterly abstraction, connecting to older models (Kandinsky, for instance) while also seeming more *au courant.* His four canvases happily crowd the tight Gray Kapernekasspace , both among themselves and internally. Whereas Mr. Marioni needs the cavernous Blum barn for his grand statements, Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe benefits from the forced intimacy of this gallery.

These paintings, each 70 inches square, are unabashedly pictorial. In them, Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe manages to reconcile the sensibilities of a color-field painter and a miniaturist, exploring a remarkable range of touch, temperature, attitude, and scale.

For Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe, monochrome is a delicate achievement rather than an act of defiance. He is more inclined to closely related hues, or cheeky contrasts, such as the expanse of vermillion and strip of purple in “Step” (2004–05). The bigger areas of color are separated by a ziggurat form — it looks like a skyscraper at its base, then tapers to the right, into the vermillion zone — made up of fastidiously painted strips of color.

“The Chameleon and the Wraith” (2003–04) presents suitably contrasting treatments for the creatures named in the title — though which is which is open to conjecture. One area has neatly dispatched little squares and rectangles, the other a heap of sticks in the process of coalescing into some kind of figure. These contrasting geometric and organic activities cohabit within a pink-and-blue ground into which they sink, or from which they emerge.

Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (Q-14) 2002 oil on paper, 22 x 30 inches Courtesy BravinLee Programs
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (Q-14) 2002 oil on paper, 22 x 30 inches Courtesy BravinLee Programs

Mr. Gilbert-Rolfe’s intimacy of touch, his quizzical scale, and the patient way he builds his picture from abstract shapes and sensations relates him to Thomas Nozkowski, one of the contemporary masters of abstract painting.

Mr. Nozkowski’s latest show is gorgeously installed in BravinLee’s railway-carriage gallery. Two blocks of six drawings face each other in the first room; the next displays the drawings from his recent collaboration with the poet and critic John Yau, the 2005 “Ing Grish Suite;” a luminous set of recent etchings occupies a third room. These works on paper don’t have a traditional relationship to painting — they are neither preparatory, nor a release for tangential interests. And there is nothing tentative about them.  The dozen drawings in the front room fill the page as much as any Nozkowskipainting does its canvas.

These drawings, each approximately 22 inches by 30 inches, are remarkable both for their consistency and for the variety of imagery and palette, The consistency comes from Mr. Nozkowski’s insistence on a strong figure-ground relationship: His quirky forms seem deliberated, as if representing something temptingly specific while obstinately eluding actual figural associations.

“Untitled (Q-14)” (2002) has a flattened, yellow shape resting on a brown mound with what could read as landscape behind (purple surmounted by green.) The yellow shape might almost read as an animal of some sort, lying sidesways to display its breast. And in another cheeky flirtation with literalism, “Untitled (Q-55)” (2004) has two voluptuous shapes in harlequin patterns that want to read like lower, stockinged female legs protruding from behind the picture plane.

Stephen Mueller Mneme 2006 acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 inches Courtesy Baumgartner Gallery
Stephen Mueller, Mneme 2006 acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 inches Courtesy Baumgartner Gallery

Stephen Mueller is a close cousin of both Messrs. Nozkowksi and Gilbert-Rolfe, sharing with the first a penchant for emblems and with the second a cheery palette of lyrical, slightly camp contrasts. But Mr. Mueller has an altogether more whimsical attitude toward figure-ground relationships.

On the one hand, he paints emphatic shapes that float within receding space. On the other, he deploys patterns as a means to frustrate credible readings of volume and depth.

“Mneme” (2006) plays a cosmic game of push-pull, in Hans Hofmann’s sense of the phrase. The background is a melding rainbow of watercolor-like strokes in pinks, purples, and mauves, over which a transparent gray orb floats, as if the shadow of a planet in eclipse. Superimposed are various flat forms: two pink eggs striated in a spectrum from light to dark; a blue rectangle, framed in white and red; and a typical Mueller shape that reads like three vases—joined at the hip—that is internally united by thickly painted, brightly colored stripes.

The smaller canvases are capable of more focused contrasts of flatness and depth. “797 Untitled” (2006) is a gem. Against a red ground, a bright green, pineapple-like mandala shape crescendos toward burgundy at the top. The shape is filled with raining diamonds, in oranges and reds that are hued to the ground. The different sizes of the diamonds denote depth, despite the flatness this pattern simultaneously achieves.

This is gorgeous painting, yoga for the eye.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 25, 2006