Perpendicular Painting: Zoe Nelson at Western Exhibitions

Record collectors are only ever concerned with what track is on the a-side. Not many will pay attention to, or often even know, what exists on the flip of their 45s. An exhibition of Zoe Nelson’s (NAP #95, #107) newest paintings, currently on view at Western Exhibitions, questions the very nature of a “good side.” My go-to reference for Nelson’s work has always been its lyrical qualities – though this exhibition references the history of that trope in painting as much as it does an x-y coordinate system. What better way to reference the spatial placement of the work than through its Cartesian properties? For Nelson, the grid is treated not as a pretext, but as a challenge. Paintings extend off the wall, appearing to fill the visual gap of the wall space left behind it – the sound or harmony within the work, if the exhibition has such an affect, directly plays off their relation to the viewer, as if the exhibition itself is a changing composition, shifting space ever so slightly as the viewer navigates around it.

While Nelson’s past paintings were entirely evocative of Supprematist abstractions, the new work exists more dimensionally, in the round. Favoring a democratization of space – or we could just as easily say the flipside – the “front” or the “back” of her paintings seem to not exist, or be discernable. There is an equality to the treatment of the painting’s entire surface area as an object that speaks to retelling of dated mid-century patterns and ideologies; a history of steadfast modernism unhinged from its context. In line with its audile perspective, the emphatic physical presence of the work maintains a discordant tension – at once occupying space, as it attempts to flatten it. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor

Installation photographs by James Prinz. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and Zoe Nelson.

In many ways, the exhibition is defined by two paintings that are hung perpendicular to the wall. In The Mosquito Girls and Witches Dance, both from 2013, the focus on the surface becomes edge of the canvas. The concept of edge was of course a quality that was belabored by a handful of male painters in the 50s and 60s, onward. However, it is not Nelson’s style or intent to stop at this formal quip. Instead, the stretcher bar itself becomes a subject we must wrestle with – almost always exposed in her work in one form or another. The impetus is not to reveal something hidden within a standard structure of a painting, but rather point towards very obvious standards of formalism, and undo them. Like all references Nelson makes to tropes within hard-edged abstraction, she demotes their meaning. What was once used as a solemn prescription for significance within the picture plane (ie. edge, gesture, form, and color) instead becomes a way to retrospectively critique that history. By moving the general into the particular, the artist’s “touch” becomes more precisely a texture; a vague definition of gesture is transformed into a type of movement, color becomes a tool for affect. Nelson purposefully confounds these rules of modernism to serve a non-modernist objective – these are not remakes, but interventions. The choice to engage with such dated ideals is not to say that her practice is non-virile, or conversely that it participates with the personal – but instead that it promotes a decidedly persistent exactness of what defines the components of a painting within her vocabulary.

Zoe Nelson | The Chase, 2013.
 Oil and metal on cut and collaged canvas and stretcher bars,
16” x 12” Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and Zoe Nelson.

In The Chase, Nelson formulaically deconstructs a diagonal composition. The treatment of the layers between wall, support, and canvas echoes the pre-existing forty-five degree angle that connects the structure, as if literally cutting through the one predisposed constant of the rectangle. In the top left corner of the piece, the angular joint where the stretcher bars meet is left exposed, and the top right is met with a triangular passage of canvas, as if it could only be stretched on one side of the cut. These rules are not arbitrary, but something that gets developed over the course of the painting. To complete the piece, a bold red outline spans the terrain of the canvas, forming a figurative X in the composition. The painting states its claim – though there is always the potential, as the other pieces demonstrate, that no matter how convincing the work seems, another painting may exist on its reverse.

Zoe Nelson | Eight Over Seven (8/7) Discord,
Oil on cut and collaged canvas, stretcher bars, wire
, 48” x 42” Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and Zoe Nelson.

It is not that Nelson does not understand, or purposefully negates a harmonious composition, but that each canvas battles against this very concept, pushing against it to arrive at a different sense of “balance” that does not depend on a congruent goal. While terms such as ‘mood’ and ‘intuition’ may seem like apt descriptors of the work, the unknowns within Nelson’s paintings complicate a “soft” read. Far from painting herself into a corner, her attitude toward this exhibition falls in line more closely with each of the paintings’ dissonant presence. Giving weight to each painting as if it were playing a note, the pieces in this exhibition contribute to striking a sound that is at once coherent and melodic, but never saccharine.


Zoe Nelson (b. 1983, Rhinebeck, NY) received an MFA from Columbia University (2009) and a BA from Barnard College (2006). Nelson has exhibited at galleries in New York, Chicago and Milwaukee, including Lloyd Dobler Gallery, Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center, NURTUREart, and Usable Space. Her work was selected for the 2011 and 2013 Midwest editions of New American Paintings, and she was awarded a Community Arts Assistance Program grant in 2012. Nelson recently returned from The Lighthouse Works residency on Fishers Island (NY), and currently lives and works in Chicago. This is her first show at Western Exhibitions.

Stephanie Cristello is an artist, curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL.


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