“A Yellow Patch of Wall”: Catherine Lee at Galerie Lelong
Catherine Lee: Quanta at Galerie Lelong
March 22 – April 28, 2012
528 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-315-0470
Catherine Lee’s new paintings, a series entitled “Quanta” (2011-12), seem to glow from within. Composed on pencil-drawn grids, the paintings are hand crafted in layers of pigment, applied square by square and stroke by stroke. The grid provides a foil for the sensually inflected material surfaces. What at first glance seem monochromes are actually “duets” between a base color and at least one contrasting color applied over it. The application, without the help of masking tape, leaves irregular edges, and the underlying colors show through to varying degrees; the seepage of colors and flickers of light at their edges create complex perceptual effects. Sometimes they suggest surfaces of low relief, like ceramic tiles or woven mats, but paintings like Slate Night (Quanta #10), (2011) also look like pixelated monitor screens.
As a complement to the 18 oil paintings, the exhibition features Alice, an array of 105 ceramic forms mounted in grid formation on the wall of an adjoining room. Like heart shaped knives, bound at the handles by stainless steel wires, the forms seem archaic and mysterious, displayed like archaeological specimens, sharing a family resemblance like leaves of a plant, but each unique. Their red, raku-fired surfaces recall the concentrated colors of Chocolate Cadmium (Quanta #21), (2012) albeit generated by a different sort of alchemy. Names of family members and places inscribed on the pieces allude to personal content in a literal way; Alice is the artist’s mother, and 105 the age she jokingly claims. Lee records what Matisse once termed “a moment in the life of the artist”: her objects gather up feelings and memories, invoked in ritualistic repetition, for which the grid provides an armature.
In Quanta, our focus is less on the individual elements; attention is diffused, but there’s still a psychological charge. If Alice recalls Lee’s earlier wall installations, like her Alphabet Series, (1991-95), in which cast bronze objects with lush patinas referenced an alphabet of place names, Quanta harks back still further, to her Mark Paintings from the 1970s, which were also grids, but more like drawings, with zigzag lines inscribed in each small square; austere and contemplative, like early Agnes Martin, they used the mesh of the grid to establish a personal space.
The irregular patches that fill the grids of the new paintings create a similarly intimate space, but the subject, front and center, is color. Lee favors strong primaries, along with variations on black and white, yet each painting aims to create its own particular effect. The overlaying of contrasting colors, akin to the constructive facture of late Cézanne, opens up a wide array of possibilities. Ranging from six inches square to almost six feet, the paintings also vary in the density of their grids. The small ones, on which the marks have more material presence, include Brevity (Quanta #25), (2012) very dense and virtually gray, and When Things Go Wrong (Quanta #17), (2012) in which black patches over red create the effect of neon.
Lee’s patches of paint recall the famous “yellow patch of wall” in Vermeer’s “View of Delft”, which Marcel Proust’s character, the writer Bergotte, longingly admires as he dies. Like Proust, Lee associates memories with intense sensory experiences. Her own yellows vary from the warmth of August Like Suns, Yellow Cd (Quanta #20) to the desiccated gold of Ivory Sahara (Quanta #1), (2011) or the lemony Dream of Reason (Quanta #23), (2012). Lee’s patches, of course, are more abstract than Vermeer’s, or than the shapes in Alice, yet their regular repetition is undercut by irregularities of application that keep our attention shifting; elements group and regroup. As in quantum mechanics, where aspects of individual particles remain indeterminate, meaning is displaced onto the overall field. The shifting energies suggest brain activity, as networks are constantly activated and renewed.
Rosalind Krauss argued in a 1979 essay that the grid retains its interest in contemporary art because it enables an underlying spirituality to lurk within modern materialism. She notes in particular its association with nineteenth-century studies of physiological optics, the sort of investigations that inspired painters like Georges Seurat. More recently, the Lacanian art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has brought renewed scrutiny to Vermeer’s “patch” (pan, in French); for him, like Lee, layering of patches emphasizes painting as “colored material rather than descriptive sign”. As Lee negotiates new territory for the grid, moving away from the specific objects and familiar armature of her wall installations – and from literal references to particular persons or places – she generalizes and amplifies the realm of memory, which now seeks a home in the measured sensuality of her seductive fields of pigment. While “Quanta” as a title implies the extension of physiological optics into the globalized space of electronics, the works on view reassert the efficacy of painting itself.