Contributed by James J. A. Mercer / Mythological characters and creatures from antiquity populate Jennifer Coates’s beguiling solo show “Lesser Gods of Lakewood, PA” at High Noon Gallery on the Lower East Side. Dryads (wood nymphs) peer out of underbrush. Layers of washy acrylic carve out sapphire chambers for bacchanals. An LED Diana hunts herds. The references are not only mythological, however. The figures’ proportions and contours trace long paths through art history, from Greco-Roman sculpture to Matisse’s nudes.
At first glance the scenes might look preciously idyllic, approaching twee pastoralism. Thickets of branches weave slyly in and out, flexing elegantly and bending weightlessly. But Coates is onto something far more substantial. Layers of paint become layers of time, spectral mists obscuring here and revealing there. Like the forests, figures are drawn in an open, unencumbered way, with basic arcs and clear lines. Their simplicity puts distance between them and us, so that the nudes live in a realm of pictures, emphatically unreal. They are archetypes within archetypes, dreamier than the dreamy scenes around them. In Dryads and Pollinators (Moths), ghostly women hover among flowers. The dryads are painted over a surface of thorns, suspended in obscurity between outraged texture and black-light color. Nothing here is rendered with a draftsman’s fussiness or scientist’s skepticism; rather, a weird spirit that feels contemporary prevails. Acrylics are sweet-and-sour, spray paints radioactive. Coates turns up the colors just loud enough to buzz, a chorus of lemon, lime, orange, and Glacier Freeze Gatorade.
But why glitter-bomb antiquity? Doesn’t pairing the ancient with the caustically contemporary risk undermining them both? Once my mind wandered outside the paintings themselves, I resolved these questions firmly in Coates’s favor. Beyond the picture’s edges are the white walls of the gallery, the door, and a grey winter street outside. Beyond this lies an endless labyrinth, the garbage-choked expanse of Manhattan. This is the context in which Coates’s handling of paint feels most resonant. Cracked layers of gritty acrylic could just as easily belong to a graffitied Chinatown construction barrier as they do to her paintings. Primeval forest thus joins the concrete jungle, the pictures resembling the urban hellscape that houses them.
Images of nature, perhaps once sources of comfort or escape, now summon suspicion or despair in the face of climate change. From this perspective, the imagery in Coates’s work visits an intense transformation, an almost unbearable inversion. The dissociated, distant quality of these paintings reflects alienation from the land depicted. This place we stand on is a site of slow death, of gross overconsumption following the slaughter of indigenous people, so thoroughly poisoned and disfigured that even our dreams of it, however we may try to displace them to a less tainted continent and era, are soaked in industrial chemicals and baked under fluorescent lights.
Coates’s work radiates an intense sadness. She has demonstrated something powerful about how landscape painting relates to the land. Its power lies not in its physical specificity, in the morphology of this or that tree or the representational accuracy of depicted local fauna, but in how deeply our psyche is entangled with the land, which is a source and conduit of emotion. Killing forests does not diminish their power, as their loss intensifies the feeling for them. The contradiction between natural imagery and synthetic material disappears when we realize that we are looking at these scenes across a massive gulf of spirit, as if after an apocalypse. The nymphs have all turned to stone, and the bacchanals are trapped in museums. The forest has been clear-cut. What remains is an afterglow, which Coates has sublimely captured.
“Jennifer Coates, Lesser Gods of Lakewood, PA,” High Noon Gallery, 124 Forsyth Street, New York, NY. Through January 16, 2022.
About the author: Painter James J.A. Mercer graduated from the Columbia MFA Program in 2021.