Gallery  August 14, 2020  Paul Laster

Figurative and Abstract Paintings Brighten NY Galleries

Courtesy James Cohan, New York, Photo: Phoebe d'Heurle

Installation view of Grace Weaver: Steps at James Cohan, 48 Walker St, New York.

After being idled for several months during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in New York, the city’s galleries, which are usually closed or merely offering group shows in the month of August, have a fine selection of one-person presentations taking place. With the dwindling likelihood of art fairs coming back to the Big Apple anytime too soon and the city’s museums still under lockdown, its galleries offer the best place to physically see art.

In this round-up of five standout solo shows, we discover three young female figurative painters—Grace Weaver, Rute Merk, and Sojourner Truth Parsons—that every art lover should have on their radar and two seasoned abstractionists—KATSU and Warren Isensee—working in solely original styles.

© Grace Weaver 2020. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo: Phoebe d'Heurle

Grace Weaver, Affront, 2020.

Grace Weaver: Steps
James Cohan
July 15 – September 12, 2020

Spinning together elements from contemporary life and art history in order to arrive at something new, Grace Weaver makes whimsical figurative works that cleverly communicate psychological sensibilities through rubbery human forms. A 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University MFA grad, who hit the ground running and has been on the rise ever since, Weaver creates colorful canvases and lively charcoal drawings of self-conscious characters (mostly young women) caught in awkward—often comical—situations, in which they are totally aware of publicly being watched. 

“These are characters, for sure, but they have an indirect relationship to real people,” Weaver confidently declared in a 2013 videotaped show-and-tell presentation on her work. “They’re doll-like and nearly human, but not quite. Like dolls, they have the qualities of being surrogate bodies. They end up being repositories for whatever sensations I choose to invest in them.”

Her compelling painting Affront turns a young woman with a billowing dress into a balloon-like figure charmingly composed from comical, connected shapes. The densely painted, outlined forms pop on the monochromatic, flesh-colored ground, while the subject’s sly, side-eyed smirk suggests both embarrassment in the uncontrollable incident and offense at being improperly observed.

Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo: Phoebe d'Heurle

Installation view of Grace Weaver: Steps at James Cohan, 291 Grand St, New York.

In the painting Shame, a young woman’s pleated skirt gets uplifted by a gust of air to humiliatingly expose the pink underwear covering her shapely derriere, while in Misstep a similarly girly subject disturbingly falls facedown on a winding staircase, with the descending steps strikingly repeating the pattern of the pleats in her skirt and the ripples of her long curly hair. 

Weaver’s dynamic charcoal drawings, on view at the gallery’s Lower East Side locale, convey the motion that’s implied in the paintings through a flurry of bold, shapely marks. First loosely sketched and then assertively defined, the drawings function as studies for the paintings and as finished works in themselves. Expressing a range of emotions, they radiantly reveal the imagination, wit, and skill of this talented young artist, whose captivating pictures make a powerful impact on both the mind and heart.

Courtesy The Hole, New York

KATSU, Machine Dot 6, 2020.

The Hole
July 9 – August 23, 2020

Perhaps best known for his portrait of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg painted with poop, graffiti artist KATSU has been stirring up trouble both on the streets and on the Internet, as well as in galleries and museums, for more than a decade. Using drones to spray street graffiti and paint abstract canvases, and creating altered videos to make it look like he’s tagging the White House or a Pablo Picasso painting at MoMA, the Brooklyn-based, Japanese-American artist is a step ahead of most of his peers on Instagram, where he has a whopping 100,000 followers.

Courtesy The Hole, New York

Installation view of KATSU: Dot at The Hole, New York.

Painted in situ with a flying drone that was digitally programmed to spray colored paints in a random pattern of dots, KATSU’s lively installation totally transforms the large gallery while creating seven individual paintings, which began as white canvases strategically placed around the room in the manner of a normal exhibition. Producing a gigantic Pop art abstraction on the walls of the white box and a series of cool color-field canvases without the touch of the human hand, KATSU makes awe-inspiring art that’s fun, funky, and wickedly smart.

Courtesy Downs & Ross, New York.

Rute Merk, Balenciaga, SS20, Look 7 II.

Rute Merk: SS20
Downs & Ross
July 8 – September 13, 2020

Mimicking the look of digitally designed avatars in early role-playing video games, Rute Merk draws fuzzy lines and paints people in layers of thinned down pigments to give a sci-fi feel to her strange yet fashionable figures. Creating androgynous characters and creatures inhabiting digital realms, the Lithuanian-born, Berlin-based artist has been exhibiting internationally for the past few years with notable results.

Courtesy Downs & Ross, New York

Installation view of Rute Merk: SS20 at Downs & Ross, New York.

For most of the canvases on view in her current show, Merk collaborated with the fashion house of Balenciaga to create a portfolio of dreamlike images that was published in the Italian contemporary art magazine Mousse earlier this year. Dressed in Balenciaga’s chic outfits, Merk’s imaginary models, who possess the looks of the typically stylish, high-cheekbone runway personas, traverse the ether space of the Internet to who knows where. Painting the human figure as a “spiritual being in the context of technological advancement, physical us in the context of virtual existence,” Merk makes art that looks as though it would be perfectly at home hanging on the walls of the captain’s quarters on Starship Enterprise—a feat that many may have envisioned, but few—like Merk—have actually accomplished.

Courtesy Miles McEnery Gallery, New York

Warren Isensee, LOL, 2020.

Warren Isensee 
Miles McEnery Gallery
July 16 – August 28, 2020

Widely recognized for his dynamic geometric abstractions painted and drawn by hand, without the aid of tape or other devices to achieve a precise, hard-edged effect, Warren Isensee presents a surprising shift in his overall body of work with a new series of paintings and drawings exploring blobby, humorous, undulating forms. 

According to the accompanying catalogue text, in which critic Ken Johnson amusingly interviews himself about Isensee’s new work, this change in approach was somewhat influenced by the Devo song Wiggly World, that the artist was repeatedly playing as he worked in the studio. Created over a two-year period, the twenty-five paintings and drawings on view construct a cartoonish, visionary realm that pulsates with Op art energy.

Courtesy Miles McEnery Gallery, New York

Installation view of Warren Isensee at Miles McEnery Gallery, New York.

Pillow Talk looks like a group of minimal, designer pillows or a bunch of border-edged shipping labels squeezed into a rectangle too small to hold all of the shapes, while Interstellar Overdrive resembles a set of gears grinding gooey, designer-colored confections from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. At other times the motifs suggest tribal masks, as in the painting Black Magic, and facial features from indigenous Northwest Coast totem poles, as seen in the repeated smiles in the loopy, colorful canvas LOL.

Whereas the petite, precise colored pencil drawings on view in a back gallery reveal the point-of-departure doodles for many of the artist’s lusciously rendered paintings (bringing to mind quilts, fabric designs, and psychedelic poster graphics), the illusionistic canvases convey a vivacious spiritual optimism that’s equally cheerful and comforting to behold.

Courtesy Foxy Production, New York

Sojourner Truth Parsons, Calling out to a green tree, 2019.

Sojourner Truth Parsons: Sex and love with a psychologist
Foxy Production
July 9 – August 22, 2020

Mixing interior and exterior worlds in her atmospheric narrative paintings, Sojourner Truth Parsons draws on life in the big city as source matter for her collage-like imagery. Assembling slices of life together on dark canvas grounds with pieces of faux blue painter’s tape rendered in a trompe l’oeil style, the Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based artist creates visual fantasies that put her feelings at the forefront. 

“I don’t think the world needs more objects. You don’t need my painting in that way. What I can offer is my feelings and emotions towards the world,” she told a Cultured Magazine writer in 2016. “I’m looking at art through my heart. Maybe that’s selfish, but I want to find something I didn’t know was there.”

Courtesy Foxy Production, New York

Installation view of Sojourner Truth Parsons: Sex and love with a psychologist at Foxy Production, New York.

Inspired by the kind of melodramatic, film noir narratives that you might find in the 1997 movie L.A. Confidential mingled with the self-centered realities constructed by influencers on Instagram, Parson’s paintings speak to a sense of alienation one can feel while simultaneously longing for success. Runaway Bride shows a woman observing herself in a mirror in a tear sheet of a painting taped on the surface of a painting that’s seemingly taped in the painting we’re observing. 

The canvas Things that never happened shows a fragmented view of a pair of elegantly attired, staged mannequins in a store window, while Ocean with piano—one of three paintings portraying ballerinas—depicts a dancer on pointe shadowed by a doppelganger (Parson’s sister is a dancer, but it’s a role that she may have envisioned for herself) in front of taped up sections of urban landscapes. The references for the painting Calling out to a green tree, however, might be found on Parson’s own Instagram page, where images of hands, hearts, and butterflies reveal the romantic longing of city life, where the pastoral can sometimes only be found in one’s imagination.

About the Author

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, advisor, artist, and lecturer. New York Desk Editor for ArtAsiaPacific, Laster is also a Contributing Editor at Raw Vision and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and a contributing writer for Art & Object, OculaGalerie, ArtsySculptureTime Out New YorkConceptual Fine Arts, and Two Coats of Paint. Formerly the Founding Editor of Artkrush, he began The Daily Beast’s art section and was Art Editor at Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine. Laster has also been the Curatorial Advisor for Intersect Art & Design and an Adjunct Curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.

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