Abstract and Concrete: The Monochromatic Paintings of Nancy Haynes
Nancy Haynes: this painting oil on linen at Regina Rex
April 7 to May 14, 2017
221 Madison Street, between Rutgers and Jefferson street
New York City, reginarex.org
If the first impression of this exhibition is that these are standard monochrome painting that would be understandable. The ten works on display, most of which are two by three feet, are dark gray and harbor nothing we’d call images. But give them some time and they take on a very different aspect, as Haynes orchestrates light and dark pigment to form, as the press release stated, an “investigation into the painted illusion of light”. Most of her canvases are demarcated by a left/ right blended fade between various blacks and shades of gray creating a luminous effect. Brush marks inhere at the top and bottom of the canvas, tactile reminders of her painting process that also function as painterly highlights. With Haynes’s emphasis emphatic use of chiaroscuro the paintings evoke dawn and twilight and exude elegiac, romantic atmosphere.
Nancy Haynes emerged as a painter at the beginning of the 1970s. At that time much was made of the “death of painting” but in distinction to that discourse there was, for a number of artists, the conviction that painting—and its historical mode—deeply mattered. It’s hard to imagine that urgency today but abstraction at that time wasn’t so much a stylistic choice as a commitment with the gravitas of political belief or religion. Like older generation painters Robert Ryman and Marcia Hafif, Haynes keeps the faith even as she reworks the orthodoxies of that most severe form of painting—Minimalist monochrome—to her own ends. This show embodied a fascinating tension between Haynes’s half century commitment to the concrete specifics of material and process connoted by monochrome painting and her own interests in metaphor, poetry, philosophy and pictorial abstraction.
While it is possible to view these paintings as pictures of light, Haynes is also deeply interested in intrinsic material qualities of paint. The sides of the panels are often painted in tune with the picture front. Haynes adjusts the matt and gloss of her painting mediums such that the surface reflects more or less light depending on the angle of vision, generating a phenomenological analogue for Haynes’s rendered shading.
And even as one is persuaded that light is being rendered in Haynes’s paintings, the work never reaches the threshold of a convincing illusion of light. Nor is it possible to say if Haynes’s light is of the interior or landscape variety—indeed each painting is so adjusted, that, like the interchangeable image of the duck-rabbit, Haynes’s portrayal of light alternates between atmospheric gloaming and the deflection of light from architectural surfaces. Oddly, rather than making the light seem general or vague with prolonged observation the light in each painting becomes more particular. In final consideration, the light of Haynes paintings is specific only to her paintings.
Through a metaphysical sleight of hand Haynes’s paintings succeed through their ultimate failure to create illusion or to portray. With the collapse of these pictorial conventions it is the paintings themselves that are left to develop a related but independent vision of light. Haynes exploits the insight that paintings are, in essence objects that variously filter, absorb and reflect light. Haynes signifies light in her paintings even as actual light in the room is required to see them. The specific critical term for this recursion of form embedded with its facsimile is Mise-en-abyme. Indeed, one of the paintings in the show bears that title.
For Haynes light is both the dynamic and the matter of painting: abstraction and concreteness. This has been a long running idea for her, as can be seen with her use of glow-in-the-dark pigment in works begun in the early ‘70s. While those luminescent paintings were firmly grounded in the discourse of monochromatic painting of their period, subsequent works advance a very different form of abstraction, one that Haynes constructs through distilling her observations of light. With her latest show Haynes entwines very different conceptions of abstract painting. We can enjoy at one and the same moment her love of brush and oil paint, her personal poetics and a philosophic reverie on the mechanics of light in painting.