Jeremy Stenger at Kristen Lorello
April 23 to June 1, 2019
195 Chrystie Street (lobby), between Rivington and Stanton streets
New York City, kristenlorello.com
Kristen Lorello’s tiny gallery at 195 Chrystie Street is currently home to Jeremy Stenger’s simple installation of five monochrome paintings. Two paintings on each side and one opposite the door give the space a quiet, devotional feeling, as if one was entering a chapel. These well-worked, mysterious paintings invite close, long looking, as you try to untangle the myriad lines and edges that both construct and break down scenes of flora, faces and fingers. Layers of paint – alternately inky dark and brightly colored – are built up and then slowly sanded away until imagery is found, like an archeological expedition in two dimensions. All this sanding and scraping pushes the paint to the sides: rough edges are clues that intense activity, pressure, and focus have been applied across the surfaces.
The overlapping imagery in these mostly black and gray paintings offer opportunities for subtle textural shifts. The weave of the canvas and horizontal and vertical brushstrokes are excavated and create their own compositions, parallel to the images. The areas of overlap, where transparent plant forms are superimposed upon each other to make abstract shapes, further complicate the visual field. There are accidental conversations at these strange edges as you begin to decipher faces and profiles, giving the viewer a chance to experience the phenomenon of pareidolia, when the human mind projects coherent imagery on a tangle or a spill. In some cases, you wonder – am I really seeing a face? Is that what was intended or am I projecting? Engaging the act of looking in this way provides a chance to find imagery the way a painter does, or for that matter, a mystical diviner spinning stories out of tea leaves or crystal balls.
All works are Untitled, but one painting is in a lighter scale of gray, suggesting dusk or a pre-dawn light, where traces of bright color from buried, partially obscured layers emerge in stains of almost toxic looking yellow and pink. The botanicals create an all-over pattern, reminiscent of William Morris’s poisonous 19th-century wallpaper (he often used arsenic-based pigment to achieve his bright greens) but the painting is simultaneously dreamy and atmospheric like a Chinese ink painting of a landscape.
Visual precursors to these paintings also come from the 19th Century: Cyanotypes, especially the botanical cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, an English botanist who is often considered the first photographer. She laid specimens of algae, ferns and seaweed onto treated paper and exposed them to the sun to create accurate reproductions with silhouette effects. Stenger’s oversize leaves and plants have a similar truth to them although they were achieved by vastly different means – manual rather than mechanical. His “specimens” mingle with hands and heads, creating alternately shallow and deep spaces. The paintings also resemble X-rays as the images often register in white outlines on a dark ground. The X-ray was invented in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen – it was the first time the interior of the body was made visible without surgically cutting into the skin. In the popular imagination of the time, X-ray images appeared to possess magical qualities – a seeing under the skin and behind what’s visible to the naked eye. Stenger’s paintings have a similar ghostly presence, projecting what might lurk in an unconscious, mental interior.
Stenger’s indirect and painstaking process creates spirit-filled visions of gardens at night, where the experience of perspective and rational space is blurred into fragments and projections. They are like elegiac shrines to the natural world – and to the impossibility of separating human presence from the landscape, which is as much a product of the mind as the weather. Strata of cultural and personal memory accumulate in dense deposits like layers of compressed rock: his paintings are as much geological as psychological.print