Devotees of abstract painting have ample evidence that it thrives in New York these days. Two exhibitions by prominent Europeans not seen here so often demonstrate abstraction is riding high elsewhere, too.
The Spaniard, Juan Uslé, and the Swiss, Silvia Bächli are both artists in their early fifties. Mr. Uslé, who has been the subject of museum exhibitions in Málaga, Ghent, Dublin and Madrid in recent years, is having his first New York show since 2002. And Ms. Bächli, who staged a mid-career retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris last year, and has had museum shows in Porto, Geneva and Melbourne, is having her first show here since 1998.
Despite different approaches towards scale, texture and color, a common attitude pervades each artist’s style that isolates a cool tension between involvedness and restraint. Both occupy a tipping point between reticence and verve. And, as befits artists who seem centrally concerned with time and with the dynamics of stasis and flux, there is a watery aspect to the work — in her case, thanks to the choice of gouache or india ink as medium: in his, in a preference for a layering of veils.
Mr. Uslé is an artist who has developed a highly characteristic, almost trademark, personal notation without allowing this to reduce his output to a formula. He works in bands of color that are applied not in a continuous brushstroke but instead in a drag of close-knit pleats. The look can be a bit like the waves of light on a vinyl record, and the paintings are in fact made with vinyl, dispersion and dry pigment.
His method produces an intriguing result; in painterly terms, it must have been put down with slow deliberation, but the effect on the eye is of rapidity, with the overlaps shimmering. It is a very odd mix of legato and staccato, like machine gun fire, except the intervals are anything but mechanical. It looks as if the brush has been dragged in a jerking stop-go motion to produce this effect. The sense at once of the repetitive and the handmade can put you in mind of ethnic weaving.
A small painting like “La Camara Occulta” (2007) recalls the juxtaposed grids that dominated his 2002 show at Cheim & Read, with the canvas divided into sections where bands follow the vertical or the horizontal. The sense is of a cropped view of an expansive continuity of these grids, with fairly arbitrary jumps in color and density. In a much cooler, less opulent, less intentional way, this division of the canvas recalls Sean Scully.
Another, more illustrious forebear in this sense of the agitated grid was Mondrian in his late, New York period of such paintings as “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Since the late 1980s, Mr. Uslé has been spending part of the year working in New York and is openly influenced by the gridular energy of the city, combined, however, with folk sources.
In contrast to his earlier New York show, Mr. Uslé has left behind a quilt-like approach to picture building. The 2002 show had a strong compositional unity that encouraged the viewer to look for subtle variations. This new show opts for exuberant variety. No longer restricted to verticals and horizontals, Mr. Uslé has started to take his bands for serpentine walks around the canvas in works like “In Verso” (2007), with its loops and hairpins of subtly contrasting bright reds against white (an almost Constructivist palette) and “Cada Vez Mas Cerca” (2006–07). In this latter work, two sets of interlocking contours in scaled tones, respectively, of blues and browns, are suggestive of some kind of organic process, akin, for instance, to a cross section of tree trunk — without literally looking like one.
Another departure in these new works is that in addition to his characteristic bands, forming a kind of fugal relationship with them on a secondary picture plane, are thin, bright continuously applied color lines, as in “Miron,” (2006–07) a chirpy pack of vertical stripes.
Mr. Uslé’s fresh, lively body of painting seems to draw its energy equally from an acute, observed sense of the jolts and rhythms of nature and culture, on the one hand, and on the other the sheer adventure of its making.
Almost as if conforming to national stereotypes, where the Spanish Mr. Uslé is primitive, robust, visceral, and colorful, the Swiss Ms. Bächli is neat, cool, analytical, and restrained. But there is a similar mix of internal and external dynamics in her show of works on paper at Peter Freeman.
Her imagery is almost forcefully diverse. Where Mr. Uslé’s concern is with phenomena, Ms. Bächli focuses on things. But her richly intriguing approach to things is phenomenological.
There are overtly figurative pieces such as a closely cropped view of the upper middle of a woman’s body, or three studies of a chestnut (most of her works are Untitled, all 2007). Others are more resolutely abstract, with say a vertical bar along the left edge of a page with a wobbling horizontal extending to the right. Some nestle between abstraction and representation, like the radically cropped thing in the first image of the show that while looking like something very specific is quite illegible. Or rather, in the manner of the cloud discussed by Hamlet and Polonius, could read as a section of a cottage with a garden wall, or equally the beak of a bird. Or as a “pure” abstraction.
The largest two pieces in the show, at roughly 6-1/2 by 5 feet each, are pattern oriented. “Line 39” is an erratic plaid, in which wayward lines seem resistant to capture without coming across as either feeble or febrile in the process. “Untitled 27” and “Untitled 28” each has a packed-in cluster of irregular lengths of thick strokes of varying density hanging from the top of the page. To describe these lines as fibers or spaghetti is merely to have a way to designate the quality of marks — the impact is sensual rather than suggestive.
To describe the different degrees of legibility in this show might give the impression of a linguistic, conceptualist approach. But the emotional tenor of the show is actually — despite the absence of color and the suppression of brushstroke — quite painterly. It is about sensations of looking and experiencing rather than sights or experiences per se, and it is this that makes the show abstract.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, February 21, 2008print