Sunday, October 1st, 2006

Christine Hartman: Drawings and Paintings

Bowery Gallery
530 West 25th Street
between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues

Until October 1, 2005

Christine Hartman The Red Cloth 2001  oil/linen, 24 x 30 inches Courtesy the Artist
Christine Hartman, The Red Cloth 2001 oil/linen, 24 x 30 inches Courtesy the Artist

It’s no cliché—painting really is, and always has been, an act of inquiry. But art in New York City has become a competitive vocation, so driven by eye-catching effects and rib-nudging ideas, that it can be difficult to separate novelty from discovery. Often the gesture of exploration seems to count for more than any conviction about the process.

Given our trendy times, Christine Hartman’s first show at Bowery Gallery intrigues for the independence and directness of her investigations. (Disclosure: I’ve been a member of this gallery for a number of years.) Her nine medium-to-large paintings and twenty drawings of still lifes and interiors have ordinary enough subjects: cats, fruit, books, pitchers, and occasionally, figures. Though depicted fairly naturalistically, all are animated by a strong sense of imposed order–or better yet, by a willful appraisal: they seem to have been put though a wringer of steady, intense scrutiny.

How many clichéd ways are there of painting a pitcher in 2005? There are the traditionally academic ways, that is, evocative descriptions of what is already known: a pitcher has volume, particular surface qualities, and fits spatially in a bigger scheme. Then there are the talking points of what might be called the new academy—the sociological analyses that generally apply equally well to strong and weak paintings: the pitcher is an indicator of a social role (its own, or the painting’s, or possibly the artist’s or audience’s.)

It’s safe to say that Hartman isn’t going after socio-political issues. But neither is she merely depicting a pitcher. In a painting like The Red Cloth, she’s characterizing its presence, that is, conveying the full breadth and weight of its visual impression in a language of forms. Here, patches of neutral teal, warm gray, and other colors–non-descript in hue but specific in their pictorial weight–coalesce as a compact, light-reflecting tower asserting itself against gravity. On its side, a thin massing of lights—brighter, in response to a different degree of illumination–projects into the space behind. (Yes, it’s the spout). Critical to the pitcher’s character are the surroundings: the keenly measured intervals that locate a tabletop, a dark mug, and a ceramic box. Hartman’s responses are elemental, but they eloquently size up the complicated, contradictory sensations of a pitcher on a table. What makes this painting all the more moving is its understated style, and what this in turn says about the artist’s intentions–while many contemporary artists would center-stage their own personalities, Hartman seems mostly concerned with her motif’s.

Every painting here is accompanied by one to four graphite studies on paper. These drawings are incisive summations of the paintings’ compositions, their tones vividly re-creating the subtleties of illumination; the half-tones on the slightly shadowed faces in the four studies for Kirsten and Lily are especially poignant.

One also senses in these drawings another, simultaneous searching. With a certain relentlessness, Hartman examines the rhythms of forms as they move across the surface. In some of the Kirsten and Lily studies, a girl’s hand, bending at the wrist, absorbs the downward-curve of her arm, punctuating its encounter with the tabletop. The pertly angled hand also becomes the launching point for the diamond-shape sheet of paper spreading across the table. The wonder is that such muscular rhythms feel so empathetic; the gestures of forms seem perfectly natural in their guise as a young girl’s movements.

In the same drawings, the artist works out the possible poses for a woman seated next to the child. In one version, her lifted arm terminates in a fan of fingers, their tips brushing and measuring the turn of her head. In another, the hand lowers to the table surface, becoming a compact wedge that anchors the looming torso behind. In both cases these events trigger a host of subsequent shifts—in the attitude of the shoulders, the tip of the head or the inclination of a book on the table—that filter throughout the image.

Every drawing here is covered with working notes (“lighter here,” “move head right”), while the margins are often filled with casual but beautifully rendered details: a cat’s head, a child’s face, sometimes a tiny recapitulation of the whole scene. Another conspicuous feature is an overlaying of irregularly placed diagonal lines that sometimes conform to the compositions, but more often don’t appear to. Faintly reappearing in passages of the paintings, they seem to be another means of thinking through these compositions.

The thinking works. Consider a painting like Jackie, in which the pale vertical of a file holder presides over a scene of discreet but complex events. In one of the exhibition’s most remarkable moments, a large, buff-colored cat, its form the very embodiment of intense, self-absorbed curiosity, emerges from behind a shutter. The broad arc of its side and foreleg terminate in the note of a delicately planted paw. Behind, its tail climbs the shutter’s chimney-like shadow with extravagant slowness. The accumulated movements of the composition—the dramatically slanting diagonals about the paw, subtle angles of books and fabric a few feet away—lend a singular poignancy to the gesture.

Cats populate the spaces of two other paintings with similar energy. They squirm from human arms, or turn and fix the viewer’s stare, with wonderfully compact gestures—physical gestures made vital not by the speed of the brush but by the gathered impulses of colors and shapes. (The rather hieratic humans in these paintings tend to be better behaved.)

Not every passage is quite so moving; in a painting like the large Still Life with Pumpkin, a complicated array of vegetables and vessels are depicted with impressive care and a lush sense of illumination, but without the momentum and economy of pressures that so animates the most striking work here.

Throughout the exhibition one will find small untruths, in, say, a jug’s lopsided contours or an angle’s exaggerated perspective. On closer inspection they turn out to the “lies that tell the truth,” to recycle Picasso’s famous phrase. They’re symptoms of the conscious ordering that, rather than confining the objects, gives voice to their pictorial character. One can surmise they’re all part of the priorities of these single-minded, unaffected investigations.

If you find context helpful in appreciating art like this, you could do a lot worse than Chardin. Chardin, whom Matisse once said he studied more than any other painter at the Louvre, was unsurpassed at building powerful hierarchies of elements, each indispensable to a varied, charged whole. This great master serves as a reference point, not just as a setter of stylistic and thematic precedents, but more importantly as an artist who, too, liked to share the possibilities of painting’s distinct language.