Two concurrent exhibitions, one uptown, one downtown, show off diametrically opposed approaches to art making. On the Upper East Side, an elegantly installed group show exhibits small works of great delicacy, carefully crafted pieces, some no larger than bookmarks. Meanwhile, a Lower East Side gallery presents ragged, roughly worked paintings and drawings that have been slashed apart and crudely stapled back together, artworks born of a no-holds-barred process.
‘Distilled,’ at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, presents small-scale paintings, works on paper and reliefs, both abstract and representational pieces. Gallery director Diana Erdos says the artworks gathered here “have in common a jewel-like quality.”
Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell and Sam Francis are known for large, Abstract Expressionist canvases. But ‘Distilled’ presents another side of these artists. Francis, celebrated as an “action painter” whose oils are replete with incidental drips and off-hand splatters, also made small, carefully designed gouaches. In “Untitled Pasadena Box (No. 67),” 1963-1964, a composition only about eight inches high and three and half inches wide, miniature splatter marks have been deliberately placed, each intentional drop of color occupying a precise location over a yellow foreground and deep blue sky.
The group show also features pieces by contemporary artists. Nicola Ginzel’s tiny works on paper are smaller than Post-it notes and mix traces of writing, an incense wrapper and what looks like a Eucharist wafer. Ginzel calls one particularly fragile artwork a “Prayer Page.” Likewise, small oil paintings by Kazimira Rachfal have spiritual undertones, using “sacred geometry” to achieve uncanny compositional balance.
In Eric Holzman’s “Trees,” 2010-2013, a rhythmic canvas depicting dense foliage, wind blows through branches. This subtle little landscape, made with a reduced palette of ochre, off-white and turquoise, rewards sustained looking. Here Holzman’s paint is as natural as his subject matter, with scumble marks making light and form that seem to have fallen effortlessly into place.
Inaugurating a new exhibition space on the Lower East Side, Betty Cunningham Gallery is presenting landscapes by Stanley Lewis. Unlike Holzman’s trees uptown, these plein air paintings disclose Lewis’s dogged struggle to depict his surroundings. Large canvases of lakeshores, suburban street scenes, backyards and parking lots undulate from layer after layer of paint as Lewis forthrightly describes every leaf of a tree, every brick of a building. Scars from surgery where canvases were chopped apart and reassembled, pasted over and brusquely cropped, are everywhere.
Like his art, Lewis’s career has developed slowly, ignoring art world trends while steadfastly pursuing his own course. After exhibiting for many years with co-op galleries, this is Lewis’s first solo show at Betty Cunningham.
In “Winslow Park, Westport,” 2010-2014, a telephone pole in middle ground provides a strong vertical axis, anchoring a suburban street scene composition. Wires radiating from the telephone pole push into the picture plane in every direction, transforming a traffic intersection into a spatially dynamic situation.
An instructor at the Chautauqua Institute’s School of Art, a number of Lewis’s canvases in this show where made during summers at the historic education center in western New York. In “Boat on Beach, Lake Chautauqua,” 2013, skiffs line a lakeshore. The oil paint in this picture is bumpy, gobs of green and tan paint pushed around until grass, dirt, weeds and bushes have been described in detail.
Like the paintings here, a large pencil drawing of hemlocks in a backyard is thoroughly labored. During the seven years Lewis worked on this large piece, he cut away at the picture, pasting it over and carving back into the heavy-duty rag paper, like a sunk-relief, until he found the contours of the evergreens and imbued the winter scene with daylight.
Distilled: The Small Painting Show, on view through October 25, 2014, Bernard Jacobson Gallery Inc, 17 East 71st Street, New York, 212-879 1100, www.jacobsongallery.com
Stanley Lewis, on view through October 25, 2014, Betty Cuningham Gallery, 15 Rivington Street, New York, 212-242-2772, www.bettycuninghamgallery.com
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com