Contributed by Mira Dayal / There is a sense of unease in the series of paintings that comprise of “Espial,” Jane Swavely’s latest show at A.I.R. Gallery. I enter the space � not of the gallery, but of the painting itself. Hovering just inches above the ground, the edges of the canvas become the frame of a doorway, beyond which thick brush conceals a dark forest. But the tall grass of Werner’s Painting (2015) is not entirely still; as Werner Herzog himself says of the jungle, in Burden of Dreams (1982), “There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony, as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle.”
[Image at top: Jane Swavely, installation view from the gallery entrance, A.I.R. Gallery]
While Werner’s Painting has the most immediate effect, hung on the wall directly opposite the entrance, it is also the earliest painting in this series. Moving through the gallery, one understands how Swavely’s interests shifted from flat space and color fields to volumes that are at once fleshy and earthly. Primarily painted in the woods of Vermont during her most recent residency, in 2015 at the Vermont Studio Center, each of Swavely’s canvases feel thick with the tactility of immersion in a new environment, and with the memory of the same. In Untitled, February Painting #4 (2016), the viewer finds herself suddenly underwater, kicking at kelpy ferns as a gray whirlpool of oil swirls before her. Inside the painting, the viewer swings around the whirlpool’s circumference, feeling the force of its pull, to emerge just beyond that silky, pulsating form into the thin, green, watery environs beyond. Espial is the action of watching or catching sight of something or someone or the fact of being seen, and in that conical form of the whirlpool, as one passes it by, one can notice briefly the face within it, a spirit obscured like a drowned Francis Bacon sitter. Now, as Barnett Newman dreamed, the viewer is within both the time and space of the painting, enveloped by its colors. Next to Untitled, February Painting #4, a small drawing shows how Swavely worked through the marks and tones that appear in the painting. On the opposite wall, the murky surface of Untitled, October Painting #6 (2015) is reminiscent of the dark woods of Vermont; the palette evokes a fire burning at a campsite, slowly charring the encompassing trees as the sun sets in the distance. Flanking October Painting #6 are the two other paintings of the same scale, similarly anthropomorphic, and most evocative of space.
In another corner of the gallery, two perpendicular canvases of a similar color scheme reveal some of the artist’s intentions. Untitled, March Painting #1 (2016) is 40 by 30 inches, but compositionally parallel to Untitled, March Painting #2 (2016), almost twice as tall at 72 by 36 inches. Both rely on a triangular form within the compositions. The former contains both yellows and purples, making it one of the warmer paintings in the series, while the latter contains deeper and more luminescent navy-purples with more gray than yellow. March Painting #1 explores the palette that #2 then constricts � using only the tones that help construct the triangular void � making its space immediately more compelling.
In their hues and strokes, Swavely’s paintings are reminiscent of Edgar Degas’s landscape monotypes, in which he used oil paint rather than printer’s ink to create abstract smudges and planes of blended tones. Degas’s series was inspired by his carriage ride through the countryside. Both series are thus more evocative of the sensation of being in a landscape rather than a specific site.
What allows these works to function as inhabitable landscapes? While Newman’s work reeled viewers into a color field, Swavely’s paintings resist close inspection, for as one approaches, the brushstrokes that once felt voluminous fall flat, having been washed away by turpentine-soaked rags scrubbed across canvas heavy with oil. Newman relied on horizontality and overall scale to allow the viewer to inhabit the painting through peripheral vision (and indeed most landscapes are painted horizontal to resemble human vision), but Swavely’s paintings are vertically oriented. At 72 by 36 inches, most are an invitation for the body, not just the eyes, to enter. They are indeed the size of a doorway, just big enough to contain a body, and though they are not figurative paintings, their logic seems to rely on cavities that are metaphors for corporeality. In this way, one relates to the paintings and finds oneself in them without needing to identify with a literal body.
The paintings are anthropomorphic not only in scale, but also in their logic of fasciae, tendons, and ligaments. When the pressure of stretcher bars against canvas creates parallel lines of more transparent paint on the surface, those lines feel less like a disruption than a vein pushing up against thick skin. When the vibrant, seductive, red triangular form of Untitled, October Painting #8 (2015) is revealed in the parting of heavy green strokes, it reads as living flesh, thick and bloody, not found in any other painting. Its position in the gallery�s foyer is then almost too revealing, representing the core of the space before the space has made itself felt.
In their juxtapositions, Swavely’s paintings finally become a new psychological scape, one that allows for personal identifications and evocations of memories. Here the title of the show seems to deliver the most meaning. Entering the paintings is finding oneself in foreign but familiar territory, as an intruder or estranged relative who once understood how to navigate these cool voids but now finds the ravines inverted, hills convoluted. Indeed, the “claustrophobia” Swavely identifies in the show seems to come not from any single work but from the sensation of intrusion, of forms pressing up against the viewer from each wall of the gallery. In a strange inversion, the paintings, or something hidden in their depths, seem to sense one�s presence.
“Jane Swavely: Espial,” A.I.R. Gallery, DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY. April 21 – May 22, 2016.
Author biography: Mira Dayal is an artist,
critic, and curator interested in exploring intersections
of performance, identity, digital and outer space. In her studies at Barnard College, she
focuses on art and economics. This year, she launched JAC, the first undergraduate journal of art criticism.
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