Light and Liminality: Looking at Suzan Frecon
Writing on the occasion of a new exhibition catalogue published this month, for Suzan Frecon’s Spring 2015 exhibition at David Zwirner, David Rhodes describes the phenomenological experience of looking at her reductivist paintings and works on paper.
Published this month, the catalogue for “oil painting and sun,” Suzan Frecon’s impressive recent exhibition at David Zwirner, is a fine record of the exhibition and contains a thoughtful essay by David Cohen as well as short texts by the artist that reflect on her process as well as on specific sources of inspiration. During a public conversation held in the galleries toward the beginning of the exhibition, Frecon and Cohen discussed the difficult issue of interpretation through description of her abstract paintings. What follows below is my attempt to add to this by looking in detail at the paintings presented in the exhibition.
Of the eight paintings present, lapis ordering adjacent blues (2015) and dark red cathedral (tre) (2014) are the smallest, both 29 5/8 x 24 inches. The titles, color and scale of the paintings bring to mind Frecon’s longstanding interest in the history of European painting — including Quattrocento panel painting. The half halos, as form at least — here without specific divinity — radiate color. Frecon works on graph paper drawn to scale to establish compositions with colors in mind and then in some instances makes a small painting first. Take dark red cathedral and the much larger book of paint (2015), for example. The compositional similarities are clear; the colors chosen differ however, evincing the intuitive nature of the process. Throughout the exhibition, movement of the brush and bleeds of oil from one color to the next are far from hard-edge abstraction: each change at the boundaries or variation in opacity of the color crucially adjusts a painting’s reading. A painting from 2005, four directions, can be viewed, as the title suggests, in all the orientations available for the painting. Here the painting is horizontal (the only horizontal painting in the exhibition). Its soft geometry interlocks in a maze-like way. Rectangular elements turn and repeat — subtle shifts of scale occur. It is typical that the colors (reds, blues and a green) have weight, and yet resist stasis because of both the musical or architectural stepping of shape and visible brush work. They appear “ineluctably suspended,” to quote the artist, on describing a quality she looks for in painting.
The galleries are lit with natural light for as much of the day as possible, and in the largest one are four paintings — one on each of the four walls. All the paintings measure 108 x 87 3/4 inches and comprise two horizontal, equally sized oil-on-linen panels. In each of the paintings the horizontal line where one panel meets the other is also a point at which there is a change in color. The curved shapes, situated above and below, are horizontally truncated, asymmetrical and specific to the boundaries of the panels’ abutment, which are the external edge and interior passage. The measure and proportions of the paintings — using both the geometry of the Golden Mean and an intuitive searching of relationships within it — determine size of shape, the shapes’ proximity to edge, and color. The size of the paintings insists on an embodied viewing, making it possible for the works to visually enfold viewers standing directly in front of them. The experience is physical, perceptual and meditative; each painting, as it responds to changes of light, incorporates a constant transience as perhaps corollary to the permanent fluctuation of states of being.
DUST (2014), seen obliquely on approaching and entering the back gallery reflects light from areas painted using tube paint with added oil, and absorbs light in matte areas: the relationship of positive and negative space is enhanced. Consequently, light falling onto flat surfaces that have been divided into areas of two different reflective qualities. The passage of light across a given surface is always shifting in Frecon’s paintings, becoming a component part of the paintings’ aggregated meaning. The dark reds and oranges shift tonally, and modulate light as much as the shapes themselves, that recur from one painting to the next.
A horizontal, oblate and earth-colored shape touches three sides of the upper panel of terre verte (2014). In the lower half of the painting, two greens, one lighter than the other, stretch from side to side at its upper edge; a slow curve echoes and inverts the oblate shape above. Its lower edge, a horizontal that, while forming a rectangle beneath, also appears to darken this zone along the base of the painting — like a sky before heavy rain. The idea of color is a key starting point for Frecon, so this change of color range, when compared with the warm hues of DUST, makes the impact of chroma on surface and shape emphatic. Within the relatively simple vocabulary, a variation in weight, complexity and illumination occurs that generates vivid differences. Taken together, Frecon’s work materializes the ideas that generate it — ideas about color, surface, shape and scale — the desire is for painting itself to make a self-referential, visual narrative, that is evocative of, rather than representative of, experience in the world.
In Cohen’s essay, the subject of words in relation to image is dealt with subtly and with regard to the paintings included here, while acknowledging the necessary difficulty encountered in communicating experiential and intellectual responses to some works of art. The role of light and its integral importance to Frecon’s painting is also expansively and insightfully described. Altogether this is a publication well worth waiting for and will contribute to the understanding of Frecon’s work, while marking the achievement of this exhibition.
Cohen, David and Suzan Frecon. Suzan Frecon: oil paintings and sun. (New York: David Zwirner Books, 2015). ISBN-13: 9781941701096, 91 pages, $55