Actualizing Abstraction Now: Painting Advanced at Edward Thorp Gallery

I've got abstraction on my mind. Not that I shy away from unmistakable figuration — and I admit my weakness for the sexiness of fin de siècle Paris (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec et al) — but lately I've been focusing my attention on process and color, whether or not form is even discernible. I moderated a panel of young abstract artists recently, yet despite my grasp of 'contemporary trends' I still turned my attention to the boldly titled group exhibition Painting Advanced that opened recently at Edward Thorp Gallery in Chelsea. The kicker is the five assembled artists aren't all young (Gary Stephan and Andrew Spence are some four decades older than Rachel Malin), yet they are continually reworking the language of abstract painting, even within their own evolving styles. Time to take the pulse. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor

Andrea Belag | Retrace, 2012, Oil on linen, 45 x 38 inches. Courtesy of Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.

I was enraptured by Andrea Belag's magnified brushwork and blended colors, luxuriously sliding across linen bases. A 2007 review in The Brooklyn Rail hints at Belag's progression from loose, watery grids to multicolored smoke trails, but her balance of opacity and transparency in powerful compositions like Retrace here are really fascinating. The way she seals off that bluish-white (almost skim milk-colored) horizontal wipe by a hardedged midnight blue stroke, though still allows the top portion to evaporate together, emphasizes Belag's skill in paint application. Her works bookend a wall of small-scale geometric paintings by Andrew Spence, each bearing a reductive palette and visual vocabulary of lines and shapes. Yet his combination of pink and red tones adds an incredible depth to these works, though their sparse layouts retain a more meditative air versus eye-twitching Op art.

Andrew Spence | Red White Pink 3, 2011, Oil on canvas, 22 x 16 inches. Courtesy of Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.

Each artist claims a room or several walls of the gallery, though there is some interplay. One of Gary Stephan's daubed, brightly colored acrylic grids, Rickety Field, faces Spence's suite and hangs near several of Belag's works. While Belag may have eschewed the grid for allover gestures, Stephan revels in it, honing his visual diction of topographical organics and blocky shapes from the mid-00's into dense woven patterns. I was seeing Dan Walsh at first, but Stephan's are more playful and clearly 'handmade', as it were, plus his striking Plato in the Weeds fits opaque cutouts into aqueous diagonal bars like it's the most natural thing.

Painting Advanced
 installation view.
left: Andrew Spence; right: Andrea Belag. Courtesy of Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.
Gary Stephan | Plato in the Weeds, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.
Painting Advanced
 installation view.
left: Gary Stephan; center (partial): Jim Lee; right: Andrea Belag

Placed alongside these three more mature artists (albeit in a separate room), Rachel Malin's unruly style might seem at odds with Painting Advanced's overall harmony. Yet, Malin's grasp of translucency amid drips and streaks in B O B and Titled 6040 is a big win for her first proper New York show. Malin works with the drips, using them to her formal advantage as Belag's brushwork and Stephan's daubs, and the multi-triangle pattern in Titled 6040 sets over the droopy shower curtain backdrop as effectively as Spence's illusionary compositions.

Rachel Malin | Titled 6040, 2012, Acrylic, ink, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.
Jim Lee | Untitled (Freudian Slip), 2013, Oil, acrylic on canvas with staples, 84 x 59.5 inches. Courtesy of Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.

Then we have Jim Lee, whose quintet is a teaser for his larger solo exhibition at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery on the Lower East Side (through March 31) and a visual palate cleanser to the other artists. His works' descriptions sound the busiest in the show (three of them feature staples prominently, and they all play with three-dimensionality), but compositionally he's reinventing the monochrome — as much as possible when executing ostensibly one tone. Via the gentle sheen and fractured architecture of Untitled (Nearest Window) and the waxy consistency of Untitled (Departed Blue Relief), Lee tweaks nonrepresentational art's most rigid parameters with loving attention. This may sound funny when describing the artist who stapled a meandering pucker of canvas across variegating black tones in like a cross between Richard Tuttle and Brice Marden — but it's the intentionality of Untitled (Freudian Slip), and the almost figurative results he gains from this cavelike darkness, punctuated by pale blue, that makes it and his related works such formidable triumphs. As much as Marden heightened the monochrome's tactile intensity with masterful oil-and-beeswax slabs and Tuttle its display potential by discreet hangings of unstretched, dazzlingly dyed and shaped canvas, Lee brings construction to the forefront, throwing monochrome's door wide open. Now that's advanced.

Painting Advanced at Edward Thorp Gallery continues through April 20.


Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film, live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo). 

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