Monday, June 20th, 2011

Barbaric Sophistication: Roy Lerner at Bego Ezair

Roy Lerner: “Passport” at Bego Ezair

June 1-June 30, 2011
905 Madison Avenue
New York City, (212) 628-2224

Roy Lerner, Pathway to the Shoals, 2011, 48 x 96 inches, Acrylic and gel medium on canvas
Roy Lerner, Pathway to the Shoals, 2011, 48 x 96 inches, Acrylic and gel medium on canvas. Courtesy of Bego Ezair Gallery

“Barbaric splendor” suggests the gold and precious stones found in Scythian jewelry, royal Celtic shields, or early medieval Bible covers. The abstractions of Roy Lerner can also be described by that term, richly colored as they are with the brilliance of their many, often shiny, sometimes iridescent paints, boldly worked together with gel and glitter into vigorous whorls and wavy rivulets that appear to have been applied with some huge, primitive comb. Still, anybody who thinks that Lerner’s pictures are the handiwork of a semi-civilized craftsman can only be one of those innocents who also thinks that painting like Jackson Pollock is so easy that even a four-year-old can do it. Lerner’s more studied understanding of Pollock has led him to a technique that utilizes some of that master’s methods, yet also incorporates others.

Pollock laid his canvases on the floor, and swirled paint on them with a stick. Lerner most notably applies his paints with palette knives of many sizes.  The use of gel has only become widespread in the decades since Pollock. Despite its thickness, Lerner still finds it easier to move mixtures of paint and gel around while the canvas is horizontal (on the floor, or a platform held up by sawhorses). However, he also wants to stand back, to see how the painting is progressing. This requires placing it vertically against the wall.  With each painting, Lerner may go back and forth, from horizontal to vertical, many times. Composition with him is neither accidental nor determined prior to painting. Rather, it is gradually arrived at, through essentially intuitive choices and modulations.  .

Another aspect of Pollock’s  practice was working on unstretched canvas, mounting pictures on stretchers after they were painted, but Lerner can’t bend the thick mixtures of paint and gel around his stretchers without the mixtures cracking, so he works on canvases already stretched. This means that he can’t crop the picture (as he used to), should he feel that it would look better in a different size or shape. To get around this, he may cut a canvas out of its stretcher, marouflé it (using a special glue) onto a larger piece of canvas, and stretch that in turn.  For the last step he decides which side of the painting should be on top. Some paintings have one orientation; with others, it depends on the context in which they are hung.

Roy Lerner, Intertwine, 2011, 48 x 36 inches, acrylic and gel medium on canvas
Roy Lerner, Intertwine, 2011, 48 x 36 inches, acrylic and gel medium on canvas. Courtesy of Bego Ezair Gallery

Despite all this effort, the show looks spontaneous: the semi-circular motion of the paint strokes conveys energy, muscular vehemence. A prime example is Lady Luck (2010), which can be hung vertically but looks especially strong as a horizontal.  Its riffled blue-and-white strokes suggest an ornate, sidewise question mark, embellished with only a few dabs of magenta. Another winner is Little Red Riding Hood (2006), a cheerful vertical with broad, lively arcs of red at the bottom, rising to a strip of glittering green shell shapes across the top. Some of the best paintings are the most tranquil. An outstanding example is Intertwine (2011), a smaller canvas dominated by short, opaque curved sweeps of pale blue, highlighted with touches of pale orange and pale green.  The shortness and regularity of the sweeps creates a restrained, harmonious pattern.

The show is a bit uneven, primarily because Lerner, like any fine painter, continues to experiment.  Paintings dominated by black or with areas of bare canvas don’t always come off, but one is unusually interesting. Pathway to the Shoals (2011) is a long horizontal with a broad band of bare, watery canvas cutting horizontally across its middle, and multicolored paint above and below: blues, reds, iridescent greens and gold.  Even for the viewer unacquainted with its title, the nautical impression is inescapable. This painting suggests a 15th-century map or aerial view of the Grand Canal in Venice, with Renaissance and medieval architecture above and below.