James Walsh at Spanierman Modern Library
April 25 to June 8, 2013
53 East 58th Street, between Madison and Park avenues
New York City, (212) 832-0208
James Walsh is an artist in mid-career who is still not as widely known as he deserves to be, despite the fact that he has participated in more than 50 group exhibitions since 1974 (when he was still an undergraduate at Rutgers) and has been the subject of five solo shows since his 1985 debut at Galeria Joan Prats, New York.
His latest show comprises just seven small paintings (24 by 18 to 36 by 26 inches) judiciously selected and installed in Spanierman Gallery’s project space, Spanierman Modern Library. I find the paintings very handsome, with a clear, vivid palette and sophisticated color combinations.
These paintings also differ from almost any other abstract paintings in town by virtue of the fact that their paint rises above the canvas surface in swoops, blobs and swirls. Practically every other abstract painter who has attracted critical attention this season is painting with thin, flat layers of paint, but Walsh’s paint is mixed with molding paste so that it has to be scooped out of a bucket and spread onto the canvas by hand. Then it is manipulated with blades of wood, steel, or cardboard, and sometimes with a large commercial brush designed for smoothing wall paper. The final effect falls somewhere between thick cake frosting and the foaming waters in the wake of a giant cruise ship.
Clement Greenberg is supposed to have said that flatness should be a characteristic of modernist abstraction. Walsh’s painting challenges this apparent dictum (possibly because he concurs in my belief that Greenberg was merely describing what had been done in the past, not advocating what should be done in the future). Here is yet another mass of evidence that painting is better done by instinct than by theory.
I have not always been enthusiastic about Walsh’s exhibitions: the last time I wrote about his work at length, I felt that he was exhibiting too many paintings that combined too much paste with too many colors, but in the current show, in each painting he either limits his color schemes or the amount of paste he uses, achieving much more satisfying results.
Jolts (2012) is an example of holding back on colors and lavishing on the paste, with the left hand yellow side scraped clean down to the canvas surface, but a giant blob of on the right edge of brown, green and white, and both sides held together by a central, medium-thick area of brown and yellow. Black Bottom (2012) goes the opposite route, with a fairly thin sea of blacks and blues on the lower side of the canvas, a sky of pink and yellow above, and a cruising inward form on the upper right that could be either a comet or a fish in the Hungarian national colors of red, white and green.
Occasionally, in Colorbook: Paularry (2012) for instance, Walsh seems to depart from his newfound restraint, to ladle on both a hefty quotient of paste and what appears at first a full range of hue (though it isn’t).) The image is built around three fat vertical sweeps of predominantly blue paste on a flatter blue field. The two side sweeps swoop downward. Both have white tops, and the right hand one also has a pink underbelly. The central sweep swoops upward, with blue feet, brown head, and a daub of white in its middle. This painting forced me to accommodate myself to it. At first, I felt it excessive, but in the end, I found myself thinking that it might be the best painting in the show.print