It was a trend that, one had hoped, was finally fading: artists using spray paint, metallics, shocking pink and Day-Glo colors in an effort to make their work look cool, more current. Those of us who’d been around for a while wished it would all just go away. No more ’80s retreads, please! But then along comes Keltie Ferris, a painter who employs all of the above, and brilliantly to the point that we can expect the whole syndrome to start up again, as she will surely leave a rash of imitators in her wake.
Ferris, who was born in 1977, doesn’t just draw on the materials used in the ’80s; evident in her paintings is the spirit of graffiti (she has said she’s inspired by layers of partially worn-off graffiti she sees on buildings) as well as the Neo- Expressionism of that era. Yet when Ferris puts it all together the result is hardly retro; instead, her vibrant, pulsating abstractions—the five here, all from 2010, threatened to overwhelm this small gallery—appear new and fresh, emblems of her own times.
Ferris’s oversize (typically 80-inch- square) canvases are gorgeous cacophonies of layered contrasts. In !@#$%^&*() bursts of yellow, pink and blue spray-painted dots are tempered by an intruding field of flat, almost crusty red-orange acrylic, as well as caverns of black and purple that look as if they were applied with a palette knife. Across the top is a strip of silver metallic paint interspersed with jagged celebratory stripes of oil pastel in Crayola colors; the stripes also dance along the bottom, although they are more menacingly rendered, like electrical zaps. All of the paintings tend to elicit slight sensations of vertigo, as if we are looking down from an airplane or the top of a tall building onto the lights and bustle of nighttime city streets.
One can sense the possible influence of Ross Bleckner in the proliferation of glowing dots, as well as Mondrian’s occasionally frenetic urban formalism (especially in Ferris’s xoxo, where primary-colored dots march in regulated lines over a white and gray ground, as if delineating squares of city blocks). Also recalling these predecessors, Ferris seems to touch on the metaphysical, suggesting some kind of cosmic order and realms beyond the senses.
Are these images meant to be expressions of jubilation or impending doom? Just like the emotions of excitement and fear, which feel strangely similar when they manifest, it’s hard to be sure.