Trouble in Paradise: Judith Linhares at P.P.O.W.
Judith Linhares: Hearts on Fire at P.P.O.W. Gallery
February 14 to March 16, 2019
535 W. 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, ppowgallery.com
Despite Judith Linares’ exhibition having opened on Saint Valentine’s Day, its title, Hearts on Fire, doesn’t refer to the heat of ardor but is actually a term for a particular cut of diamond. Rather than burning with expressionist passion, we find canvases that sparkle with a brilliant light finely honed by technical rigor. This disjunctive bait and switch is subtle, but pervades all her paintings. Her strange vignettes, executed with energetic but measured brushstrokes, elicit feelings that could be described as ecstatic uneasiness pervading a slightly seedy arcadia.
Linhares has been showing in New York since moving to the city from the Bay Area over twenty years ago. Now in her late 70s, she has recently started to receive the kind of public recognition she deserves. But because recognition tends to overpower the subtlety of all the disruptions that might have prevented acceptance to begin with, it is particularly important now to pay attention to the ambivalent feelings her work can engender.
The first large painting we encounter, Dawn, 2017, depicts a self-satisfied, naked woman, glowing crystalline emerald, riding in on a blanketed blue-grey donkey. She faces a cosmic sunrise, but we don’t see the sun. The sky, replete with orbs and stars is streaked not with the normal warm spectrum of sunrise color but with cobalt, ochre, rust, and violet umber as well as a few streaks of azure and lemon. The exploding heavens illuminate a desert landscape of brilliant citron contrasted with the shaded trail of olive and dark mahogany trodden by the donkey and its nude rider. But there’s something unsettling.
It’s that naked green rider. The image is disturbing because for all its dazzling light, the nude equestrian is no sexy Lady Godiva, nor is her steed a white stallion, but a humble donkey. Coming across initially as ugly, glaucous, and misshapen, she represents someone who has ridden all night to triumphantly make it to sunrise, and her indomitability should compensate for any shallow judgments on her physiognomy. Perhaps this is a metaphor for a female artist’s long journey out of obscurity as the world finally sheds its light on her work. It is notable that while Linhares populates her paintings with female nudes, they are never presented as erotic objects, and while their bodies vary pointedly from the ideal, they always appear completely unselfconscious and comfortable in their skin and shape.
But even though the rider’s viridescence comes from being in shadow, she still seems unnaturally green for a human, and the donkey’s expression of annoyed exasperation with its burden elicits our sympathy, making that initial body judgment a little less embarrassing. A key part of thinking about Linhares’ work involves a constant questioning of our own ambivalent reactions both to her figures and the ambiguities in the paintings.
Linhares employs her brushstrokes like letters, and groups of them become words in sentences. Her insistence on the integrity of each piece of her painted language creates a jumbly visual ride. There is little smoothness in a Judith Linhares painting, and there is an awareness of how everything is assembled in a way that is not planned, but is, nevertheless, spontaneously deliberate. As much as she uses light to create a coherent image, she also fractures attention by the awareness of how abstractly everything is put together one stroke at a time. Her consciousness always feels omnipresent through the visibility of her decisions.
Linhares creates her light by color contrasts among brushstrokes. Each stroke is either close in tone to its neighbor but a different hue, or wildly contrasting. And for every high key pigment like lemon, cyan, vermilion or chartreuse there always corresponds a darker ochre, ultramarine, walnut, or ivy. She combines these brushstrokes into her two major tropes: striations and radiating spokes. The striations become sky, flesh, or stone while the spokes become stars, suns, flowers, or quilts.
There are two main genres represented by the 17 paintings here, playing off each other in significant ways. Besides the attention-getting large paintings, whose one or two naked figures in barren landscapes are dramatically illuminated by sunrise or sunset, several small paintings of flowers in glass vases punctuate this show.
These are not the beautiful flowers procured at an expensive florist, but rather the cheap daisies, poppies, and hydrangeas from the corner deli. This ironic dichotomy of class produced by plebeian flowers and fashionable high art paintings is a typical Linhares twist. The subjects and colors may refer to common taste but they are executed with startling sophistication. Though it’s tempting to think of these paintings simply as virtuosic formal exercises, Linhares mines them fully, and they are microcosms of issues that animate her larger canvases. The radiating spokes of the daisy petals, and the striped patterns of the backgrounds are Linhares’ primary modules, as are the structural building blocks of form in all the other paintings. Moreover, unlike the bigger canvases that seem lit from the skies, there are no illuminators in the flower paintings. These paintings show us how Linhares builds the suffusing light with a purely abstract construction of color juxtaposition.
Each of the five flower paintings consists of flowers in a glass vase on a table with striated backgrounds. Sometimes the flowers resemble exploding fireworks as in Autumn Joy, (2018), and sometimes they are like a sad group of children in detention after school, such as the wilted blooms in Spring Break, (2017). These seemingly simple paintings are a catalogue of formal ideas culminating in the way the glass vase in every painting, painted as thickly and opaquely as every other part, is transformed into a transparent lens that diffracts stems, background, and table and becomes a metaphor for the painting itself as a distorting lens through which to view human consciousness.
All of these paintings challenge assumptions about taste, art history, narrative, skill, sexuality, and beauty. The large paintings are replete with references to the primitivism of Henri Rousseau, as well as the abstract formalism of Matisse. Linhares wants us to understand that art history is not a linear progression, and insists on going back to the early years of modernism to revitalize painting. These paintings may seem like stories, but their ambiguity undermines our ability to attach narratives that make sense. The bodies of her characters are sexualized, but not in a way that seduces a viewer. Her paintings may seem eccentrically awkward, but a close examination reveals a sophisticated understanding of pictorial construction. Yet these provocations occur on so many contradictory levels, and are held together by such masterful structures of color and light that we can become as sun-dazed as the figures in Beach, painted this year.
Beach is occupied by a long naked couple reclining front to back on a glowing starburst-patterned quilt. The man sports a Mennonite beard and lies behind the woman and caresses her hip. With the sun at their backs and their feet entangled, they stare raptly into the sky possibly waiting to be beamed aboard an unseen mother ship. The amazing green skull nestled in front of the pair, looks like it had belonged to someone who died waiting for the same rapture. Or maybe it is the remains of dinner eaten by the same lion that stands transfixed on a dune nearby. Animals in Linhares paintings exhibit the impatience of jaded observers.
Like cut gems, Linhares’ paintings are hard and sparkly, translucent but impenetrable. They are replete with parables of indomitability and struggle, but also speak of surrender—whether to intoxicating urges (as in Revel, 2017, which depicts a naked blond swigging wine), decay, or the uncertainty of what lies ahead.