It might seem counter-intuitive to begin a review of an abstract painting show by discussing realism. Especially now, when abstract painting is everywhere, from the Museum of Modern Art’s contentious survey The Forever Now, to artist-run spaces in Brooklyn, and the white cube galleries of the Lower East Side. All this robust activity begs the question: How is painted abstraction serving us? As we are increasingly displaced from others and our immediate environment, life itself is degraded into abstraction. What is lost as our daily experience becomes less bodily lived and more viewed as an image?
Clare Grill’s paintings respond to these tricky questions with warm materiality and cool thoughtfulness. Her work is abstract, but it is an abstraction that comes from perceptual experience and the reality of an encounter. Touch’d Lustre, Grill’s first show at Zieher Smith & Horton, presents eight oil-on-linen paintings, all completed in 2015. This exhibition is the artist’s fifth solo venture in New York, and the first to provide the requisite space to ideally experience her work. The scale is a jump for Grill (the largest three are 63 by 50 inches), and the works are all vertical, a presentation that mirrors an upright body. The height feels familiar too, roughly the size of a small person or child. Several of the paintings’ titles (“Fur,” “Glass,” “Copper,” “Rind”) reference animal, mineral, and plant, and there is a corresponding elemental quality to her work.
In a departure for Grill, these paintings are based around a single color theme, and each exhibits an all-over formal pattern. A thin border or hint of an edge focuses attention on the surface as a defined plane. Within these parameters immense tonal and physical variation abound. The predominant color of “Copper” is pink, but it is a pink that is composed from a seemingly infinite range of yellows, greens, blues, and greys. Six fingerprint-sized smudges, like smoke marks, draw out the vibrant colors to further effect. “Rind” is composed of pale and sunny yellows cut with orangey dabs and slivers of white and grey. In “Peacock,” the show’s heart-stopper, velvet darkness is flecked with passages of bright Egyptian blue, and shades of purple, pink, grey, and teal. The subtle emergence of light forms on a dark ground has a randomness that seems found rather than made, like a constellation. The oil paint is chalky and luminous and has a nearly iridescent shine. Like the titular bird’s plumage, the painting’s visual splendor is in the details.
Each painting is a concentration of energy, and the impact is similar to Cubism’s confusion between space and form, building and disintegration. However, Grill’s forms are not hard and cube-like, but curvilinear. In some cases, most apparent in “Grain,” the forms resemble glyphs and have an alphabetic presence. “Grain’s” dark brown surface is rubbed free of pigment in certain areas, giving the painting an uncanny transparency. When I first encountered the work I thought this was caused by the thinness of the linen weave and a hidden light source. Perhaps because the reds and blues pop out readily against the burgundy ground, “Grain” is the most accessibly readable in the series. This wavy shift between foreground and background is also palpable in the pale lavender “Dent,” a work that starts to magically move on its own the longer it is viewed.
Trudy Benson, in a concurrent solo show at Lisa Cooley, offers an interesting counterpoint, as both young artists have mastered their approach to the materiality of paint. Benson’s layers of brilliant primaries, impasto paint lines, and graffiti-like markings are seductive. Yet for all their physicality and technical glow, her paintings are static. Grill’s works are also a product of paint build-up, but unlike Benson, her surfaces have no visible starting point, and the light they transmit arises from the seamlessness of paint and support. Benson’s works are wide-awake in a 24/7 world, while Grill’s arise from a mimetic daydream.
Grill’s paintings are not laden with fantasy, symbolism, or metaphor and it is impossible to attribute emotional or psychological states to them. What we’re left with is the difficulty and pleasures of real time experience. Ad Reinhardt, whose black paintings seem a world away from Grill’s lively color-forms, shared with Grill a metaphysical approach with his idea that “art is involved in a certain kind of perfection.” Painting cannot compete with the narcotic of image feeds accessed through tiny squares on screens. The tactility and grace of Clare Grill’s art provides a visual respite from this daily impoverishment. In her words, “it was paradise” to make the paintings for this show, and I believe her.