Clare Grill is a painter based in Queens. She has shown consistently, if not quietly, over the last few years. An exhibition of her work titled Touch’d Lustre at Zieher Smith & Horton gallery opened in late March with great attendance, but without the noisy hype and fanfare that commonly surround many young painters, particularly in exhibitions set on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. What you won’t find are any paintings made with “novel” materials or pseudo-intellectual gimmicks. You won’t find anything made with blood, wine, or crude oil. Nor will you marvel at the use of a lighter, a candle, or a random body part. The work in Grill’s exhibition is not flashy, loud, or particularly self-congratulatory. Instead, a particular sense of humble self-confidence pervades these works.
Here are eight canvases, each painted in the last three or four months, that are remarkable for their unapologetic use of modernist language. Looking around the gallery space, they shift and shimmer in a similar way. They have that thoughtful melancholy that seems to come from hours of daydreaming, and more time still spent with brush in hand, working then reworking each surface — painting and sanding, sweating and thinking. The experience is wistful and pleasantly bittersweet. Though I have never met the artist, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. These are unabashedly beautiful and mysterious paintings, wrought with a clear sense of concentration and without cynicism.
Each canvas is a tone poem written in a specific hue. In each painting the artist compresses a hazy tussle of dizzying shapes into one deliciously tangled layer. Her painting “Grain” is particularly subtle in its layering of dryly brushed oils set beneath and atop a field of thin brown that, when glimpsed from across the room, approximates the nostalgic feel of ancient burlap. Each quirky chunk of this biomorphic puzzle shimmers as the painting shifts in color — from black to green, from green to pink. The languid shapes and winking composition of “Grain” seem to nod to Miró.
“Dent” is a vision of fog like calm, wrought in tones of blue and lavender. There is something familiar about the tectonic strata of colors stacked against one another in horizontal piles. The geological structure that grounds this painting is particularly compelling as the final impression it leaves is not one of solidity but of a dreamy, airlike whimsy. I can’t but help think of Paul Klee. Grill doesn’t simply borrow, steal, or evoke the late modernist; her vocabulary is unquestionably her own. Her compositions are shifty and tricky, imbuing this work with a sense of the unsolved riddle.
Grill’s “Peacock” is another notable work among the eight paintings on display. Her mottled layers of blue and black draw the viewer into a labyrinth of shifting depth. In this space aural spheres of thin blue look like they were made by phantom car lights. They cast cool, electric light in eerie darkness. The cumulative effect of these moments of light is brilliant, even jewel-like. It lends the painting an almost futurist quality. I imagine glimpsing an unfamiliar city skyline lit at night through a steamy window.
Grill has managed to navigate the twisted alleyways of modernism without snagging herself on the tricky hooks of academicism. Though her paintings seem to invite feelings of longing, and of contemplation of the past, they gracefully sidestep being backward-looking or derivative. Amidst her carefully painted jumbles Clare Grill has sewn seeds of magic.