Sunday, October 1st, 2006

Leah Durner: Paintings

Wooster Art Space,
147 Wooster Street
New York City

September 5 to 30, 2006

Leah Durner, Rousseau 2006, acrylic and oil on canvas, 60 X 66 inches
Leah Durner, Rousseau 2006, acrylic and oil on canvas, 60 X 66 inches
Day is Breaking 2001, from the Banff Series, acrylic on paper, 63 X 60 inches, both images courtesy the artist
Day is Breaking 2001, from the Banff Series, acrylic on paper, 63 X 60 inches, both images courtesy the artist

This show – which was curated by David Cohen, editor and publisher of — covers a time range from 2001 to 2006 and as would be expected reflects some diversity. Durner appears to have moved from a rougher esthetic to a place in her work that is more refined.

The earlier of these pieces were done on paper with edges that are sometimes angled and uneven. Due to the effects of water-based paint the paper contains large ripples which, in conjunction with gallery lighting, creates an additional dimension of light and shadow not available on stretched canvas.  These pieces are approximately the same size as the canvases that follow later and should be regarded equally as paintings in their own right rather then as ‘works on paper’.  They have a pleasantly unfinished, often chalky, raw quality that provides them with an authenticity not as available in later work. Durner references the legacy of the New York School artists from the more expressive side in these pieces.  Compare “Day is Breaking” with “Stripes Drip”:  the former weaves together the structure of the forms, primarily through the paint handling.  “Stripes Drip,” on the other hand, gathers the forms together in a way that recalls Morris Louis and similarly confronts the conceit of orderly placement by letting gravity turn the paint loose.  The difference is that Durner’s paint is more opaque than Louis’s. These two approaches are nothing new but the execution is well done and the diversity between them is refreshingly experimental.  This is especially so given the unique textural capabilities of paper and the dry quality of the paint.

Her more recent work on canvas reduces the rough and tumble approach.  Further, the latest work divides into the two categories of painted or poured.  The poured pieces are the most refined work in the show as well as the smallest of the canvases.  Because of this they drift too closely toward functioning as objects and do not fully engaging as paintings. The refinement is too controlled (surprising for poured paint), the color too evenly distributed and the overarching effect too synthetic. The result is that these pieces come off as inaccessible and remote when compared to the other work.

Contrast this with Rousseau (2006) where a generous depth of space is coupled with an abstract, though natural sensibility.  The colors compose a warm earthiness that contributes to an overall realism regarding the emotional temperature of the piece. Another painting, Lush(2005) achieves the same thing but with a completely different color theme. In this piece the intensity is turned up with bright yellow and chartreuse dominating. Yet the governing colors are not straightforward as each is comprised of a complex mixture of tones.  Here and there bits of light blue, lavender and sienna are tossed in which is just enough to challenge the majority hues.  Rousseau and Lush are the strongest paintings in this show for offering simplistic forms complexly arranged.

Compared to the paintings on paper Rousseau and Lush break away from Durner’s use of woven forms or the confrontations she sets up between order and anarchy.  Unlike the poured paintings, they achieve a refined authenticity and quality of ‘painterly realism’ not provided by the latter work. In the end Leah Durner deserves a great deal of credit for pushing the boundaries of the territory she has staked out for her art. Clearly she is an able painter with an excellent color sense who is not content to simply ‘paint what she knows’.  Rather it is her artistic curiosity and willingness to experiment, for good or ill, that makes the best of her work even better.