Friday, November 28th, 2008

Hilary Brace: Recent Drawings at Edward Thorp Gallery

October 24 to November 29, 2008
210 Eleventh Avenue, 6th Fl,
between 24th and 25th streets
New York City, 212 691 6565

Hilary Brace Untitled (#Sep08) 2008, charcoal on mylar, 9-1/2 x 7 inches, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery
Hilary Brace Untitled (#Sep08) 2008, charcoal on mylar, 9-1/2 x 7 inches, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery
John Martin Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion 1812, oil on canvas, 72 x 52 inches, St Louis Art Museum
John Martin Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion 1812, oil on canvas, 72 x 52 inches, St Louis Art Museum

Hilary Brace is showing a series of small drawings at Edward Thorpe Gallery that conjure  astonishing, vast topologies.  At first the eye is fooled – one thinks one is looking at silvery photographs of sublime cloudscapes shot from an airplane above an uninhabited wilderness.  Closer examination reveals the patient, expert mark of the hand, as well as an improvisatory richness of imagination that, while consistently illusionistic, is decidedly otherworldly.  Brace applies a charcoal ground to the matte surface of mylar, which she then selectively erases.  This technique allows her to sculpt with light, teasing from the gray ether all manner of craggy cliff, crater and cavern, each with its intrinsic texture, and even more, an encyclopedic variety of mists and fogs, clouds and semi-opaque, sun-struck vapors.  Brace can seductively melt rock into gaseous flow and back again in billowing, heaving layers.  This polymorphic tractability allows an improvisational logic, where light events — shadows, soft or hard; x-ray translucencies; whiteouts and luminous blindings –can callforthlandscape features, reversing the causal order.  Light becomes the prime mover rather than the slave of mass, liberating the artist from pat, dutiful rendering –and also, perhaps, from the tyranny of earthbound narrative.

That said, it is tempting to read Brace’s work as an opportunistic update on the empire-building formulae of the Luminist sublime –reserved and cryptic rather than grandiose, to be sure, but just as unabashedly crowd-pleasing.  In Untitled (#Jan08) we find ourselves in a womblike cave with soft stalagmites of rising mist.  One column grows through a sunlit hole in the rocky roof, allowing for a tour de force in the articulation of diaphaneity in varying conditions of light.

But on second thought, one is led further up the Hudson River, as it were, to its disturbed source in the maddened excesses of English Romanticism.  In Untitled (#Feb08) Brace depicts a sunken canyon, with ground fog the viscosity of ammonia gas pouring into it from a fissured plateau.  In the distance is a rising swell of heavy cloud that might be coming fast, calling to mind (mine at least) the mushrooming dust of the World Trade Center roaring up Church Street.  The gorgeous pillars of fire and bubbling swamp of Untitled(#Oct08)seem distinctly menacing and toxic, while Untitled (#Sep08) tunnels our eye from a dark foreground through storm clouds above, and an underlit, choppy sea of ridged foamings below, towards a blinding vortical glow.  Such apocalyptic, swirling infinitude was the specialty of the once immensely popular English artist John Martin (1789-1854).  Often called a “visionary,” the term is badly misused; Martin’s grandiloquent art is the exact opposite of the penetrating concision of a Blake or a Turner.  Instead, he is precursory to the cinematic spectacle, in which the whole game is to cross every t and dot every i: architecture of luxuriant detail and huge proportions, casts of thousands, phantasmagorical, cascading landscapes –and no crumb left to the viewer’s imagination.  Yet Martin’s sheer industriousness in wresting palpable space from every shard of his pictures, which rivals, writ large, the miniaturist obsession of his younger contemporaries Samuel Palmer and the patricidal painter of fairies Richard Dadd, places his skeleton squarely in Modernism’s closet.  Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, for example, with its endlessly climbing pictorial field, horizonless and unresolved, has as much to do with Pollock and de Kooning as it does with D.W Griffith and Peter Jackson.

If the apocalyptic landscape tradition epitomized by Martin foreshadows the all-over, Greenbergian imperative, Brace is shrewd to adapt it to her purpose.  She joins a preponderance of artists today who skate as close as possible to the thin ice of the literal, the populist, the illustrational.  The best succeed in not falling through:  by remaking borderline kitsch into abstract pictorialism, the likes of Alex Ross, Sue Williams, Neo Rauch, Vija Celmins and Lari Pittman, for example, get to eat their very different slices of cake and have them too.

Whether Martin’s influence on Brace is direct or indirect, one should note that he worked extensively in mezzotint, a medium of erasure convergent with Brace’s, and that, perhaps consequently, the foggy whiteout and the filmy, light-charged ray, which Martin wielded with an unprecedented symphonic command, correspond to the exact tricks of the trade by which Brace stirs up her images, keeping them from clotting into beach-art Surrealism.  Martin, quoting from The Tempest, once described his aim as showing how “the almighty Disposer. . . ‘between the green grass and the azure vault sets roaring war.’”  Perhaps such poetics seem overwrought to our ears, but Martin’s thrilling fantasias of endtimes weather are nevertheless surely ripe for revival given the imminence of global climate crisis; meanwhile, Brace’s modest, knowing seductions play it far closer to the vest, a contemporary tactic with its own sort of exquisite chill.