Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In “Sense of Place” at Greene Naftali Gallery, ten artists unflinchingly explore the nuances of transition, from epiphany to revolution, from getting lost to just moving on. The show is incisively curated and genuinely cohesive. Setting the existential tone is Molly Rose Lieberman’s gnawingly provocative and visually complex painting But first cut me open golden. The subject has apparently volunteered for risky change that could be terminal, liberating, or both. Any way you slice it, the focus is on the self. Contrast this with McArthur Binion’s ironically minimalist Self Portrait, a haunting paean to personal abnegation consisting of two rectangles, one black with muted interior geometry and the other a flat gray-green. In contrast, Lieberman’s gorgeously agitating Soulsplitter, predominantly a tawny yellow, has the visual feel of an aerial map, with the split in question a gently meandering border. On the right side is a stable and obscurely figurative swatch, on the left a kinetic morass of disintegrated elements. Again, something transformative has occurred, destructive or constructive we aren’t sure.
On the next wall, the exhibition acquires greater sociological specificity while carrying forward its more sweeping through-line. Mosie Romney’s Becoming Nobody is a decisively figurative painting that could be construed as Black theatergoers — or they could be passengers on a ship — with a mysterious fading white demon hovering above. Either way, the piece is a due assault on ahistorical, acquiescent assimilation. Daniel LaRue Johnson’s untitled hard-edge canvas from the early 1970s is just as decisively abstract, its predominant bright green shape vectoring onward and upward but blocked by darker marginal features, intimating imposed restraint. Ninety degrees adjacent, on the west wall, is Lubaina Himid’s Man in a Map Drawer. Painted on the inside of a found drawer naturally meant to be closed, it presents a quizzical Black man against a backdrop of what appears to be the ocean and part of the West African landmass. The piece connects nicely to Binion and Romney’s theme of Black identity suppressed. Matt Connors’ wittily allusive Hidden Hang-er zeroes in on invisible iniquities in plain sight.
Gedi Sibony’s installation Options Being Dreams – an impressionistic facsimile of a writing desk – points to framing and harnessing talent as an antidote to, as well as a product of, privilege. It’s a grace note of meta, trailed by his small painting of modest affirmation, FlowersOne.
The remaining works scan as grounding reality checks against the more momentous revelations previously registered. Cathy Wilkes’s five small, delicate drawings convey a gathering decision simply to make a move. In counterpoint, Simone Fattal’s small, glazed sculptures – Lady in Waiting I and II, Woman on a rock, and Construction – reflect stasis of some duration, relief from change that nonetheless remains inevitable. On the bulkhead to the right hang two exquisite Jean-Frédéric Schnyder paintings of the sun setting over the sea in different intensities. Finally, on the far side of his and Fattal’s highly wrought works, is Wilkes’s casually insouciant installation of two spent radiators surrounded by the mundane detritus of a chapter now closed. Arranged to simulate diminutive minimalist sculptures, the figures she derives impart exhaustion. More grandly, an upturned tray seems to signify the end of a vaunted era of monumentality. The surprising reach and disarming melancholy of this unassuming tableau recapitulates the elegant, subliminal gravitas of a fine group show: place is always transitional, and the here and now is never merely that.
“Sense of Place,” Green Naftali, 508 W. 26th Street, 8th Floor, New York, NY. Through August 5, 2022.