A 1963 opinion piece in Art News titled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Art Schools?” by painter Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) bemoaned the state of art education at that time and advocated for an atelier program that would “strip away everything but its basic, serious components: drawing, painting, sculpture, history of art.” Matter’s article inspired a group of students to join her cause and, the following year, the New York Studio School was born. Three current exhibitions of paintings by four artists connected to the New York Studio School, spanning generations, demonstrate the success of its no-nonsense approach to art.
Place and Passage: Elisa Jensen & Ruth Miller, on view at the New York Studio School Gallery, features work by Ruth Miller (b. 1930), who has taught at the Studio School since 1972, and Elisa Jensen (b. 1965) who also teaches at the school and was once Miller’s student.
The show pairs Miller’s easel paintings of still lifes and rural landscapes with Jensen’s large-scale oils of Brooklyn’s hipster enclaves. Though Jensen paints trendy figures on street corners in Williamsburg and Greenpoint while Miller’s subjects are gourds and cabbages, ceramic jugs and kitchenware, both artists elevate their subject matter to the timeless, depicting light with rare feeling.
Despite the domestic objects in Miller’s tabletop tableaus, these works are decidedly not sedate. Alternating between dry-brush paint application and oily passages of color, illusionistic form and loosely drawn outlines, her active still lifes were not made for easy viewing. In “Still Life, Two Pumpkins,” 2013-14, light streaming into the composition from a window on the right side of the canvas permeates the scene. Here two life-sized squash are left transparent globes of green and orange paint while an oilcan is carefully articulated. The palette in this picture runs the gamut, from murky to high-key color.
Jensen’s palette is also wide ranging. “Crossroads Biker,” 2013, a canvas over seven feet across, contrasts a grey, graffiti-covered corner in Bushwick, Brooklyn with the fluorescent colors of a cyclist’s sportswear. Using two-point perspective, an intersection comes alive with tension as the man on his bicycle waits in the crosswalk, watching for the light to change, leg cocked on the pedal, eager to speed away into pictorial space.
Bikes are a recurring motif in a number of Jensen’s canvases here. “KENt Street Biker,” 2012-14, an even larger canvas, portrays a biker in silhouette, speeding from right to left as large, loopy graffiti scrawled on a sooty redbrick wall reads from left to right, moving the eye back and forth across the canvas. “Cold-eyed Girl, McGuiness Boulavard,”2014, and “Under the BQE,” 2013-14, both formally rigorous works, feature trendy Brooklyn youths painted as monumental figures. Studio School Dean Graham Nickson, writing in the exhibition catalog, says Jensen “has a passion for the mythic, and in her search for imagery, urban legends extend to the ancient mystery of woman and the wheel.”
A recent Studio Schools grad, artist Eleanor Ray’s (b. 1987) diminutive paintings, on view now at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, pack a wallop. Everyday scenes, including café interiors, abandoned city lots and a broken umbrella in a snowbank, are soulfully composed on small panels, none larger than 7 inches in any direction, rendered with deft, delicate strokes. “White Cabinets,” 2013, is a visual delight, with carefully mixed greys of various temperatures, eloquently describing daylight raking across a wall of doors and drawers. A warm brown stripe along the bottom edge of the painting is both the waxy sheen of a hardwood floor and a perfect compositional solution.
Ray’s “Big Painting Studio,” 2013, is an interior set in the Studio School’s Lehman Painting Studio, one of many historic rooms in the art school’s landmarked Greenwich Village facility. And “Avital’s Studio,” 2013, is set in the studio of Ray’s colleague and former classmate, Avital Burg, also currently exhibiting artwork.
At Slag Gallery in Brooklyn, Burg (b. 1985) is showing paintings of cardboard dioramas. Originally from Israel, Burg first moved to New York to study at the Studio School. She makes dreamy cardboard maquettes of castles and Ferris wheels in her Brooklyn studio and then paints her cardboard creations with a straightforward touch. In “Cardboard Castle,” 2013, a fairytale palace, assembled with mailing tape and tubes from paper towels rolls, is painted from above, an imaginary construction that, despite its artifice, maintains an air of mystery.
Each with her own thoughtful outlook, the paintings of Miller, Jensen, Ray and Burg are formally solid and refreshingly accessible. This year the New York Studio School celebrates its 50th anniversary, a bastion of serious art that continues to live up to its founding philosophy.
Place and Passage: Elisa Jensen & Ruth is on view through April 5, 2014, New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street, New York, NY, 212-673-6466, www.nyss.org
Eleanor Ray: Paintings, on view through April 20, 2014, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth Street, New York, NY, 917-861-7312, www.shfap.com
Standing on Cardboard: Avital Burg, on view through April 6, 2014, at Slag Gallery, 56 Bogart Street, Ground Floor, Brooklyn, NY, 212-967-9818, www.slaggallery.com
Note: Xico Greenwald has studied at the New York Studio School and served as a moderator in a recent panel discussion there.
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com