Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / “Dream Opera,” Mary Shah’s solo show at Rick Wester Fine Art in Chelsea, presents suavely dense abstract narratives that still unfailingly meet the visual priority of beauty. While the notion of an abstract narrative may seem paradoxical by its terms, if representation and abstraction are part of a continuum and not a stark dichotomy, the paradox isn’t too daunting to resolve. Abstract Expressionism, spiritual abstraction, and lyrical abstraction have long certified emotional and spiritual content in abstract painting, and opened the door to narrative as well. Shah confidently marches through it, and in fine style.
Two Coats of Paint 2022 Fundraising Campaign is underway! If you enjoy Two Coats of Paint’s art coverage, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution. Help keep the painting conversation going in 2023. Thank you! Click here to contribute.
In her optimally busy oil-on-panel works, many of them diptychs, there are hints of figuration, but a hard-edge ethos as well as a coyness towards representation akin to that of Georgia O’Keeffe or Charles E. Burchfield in his late phase keeps them well on the side of abstraction. The 13 pieces here reflect an urgency, possibly born of Shah’s determination to fully exploit studio space friend and fellow painter Jill Moser lent her during the pandemic’s darkest days. In most of them, lacerating yet elegant line, broadly reminiscent of Clyfford Still, suggests shrouded lives struggling to emerge and expose what is unseen but restrained from doing so. This is especially pronounced in the fulsomely titled Perhaps the Same Bird Echoed Through Both of Us Yesterday, Separate, in the Evening, in which apparent fragments of the referenced bird surface through a distressed and fluid overlay. The titles are usually shorter and provide delicate guidance. Still, they seem optional. The paintings, owing to their trenchant visual force and coherence, speak meaningfully for themselves.
Wester has hung the show seamlessly and strategically, with astute juxtaposition. On one main wall are paintings depicting relatively static or set piece ideas – melody, opera, poetry – with submerged content only gently revealed. Those on the opposite wall pulse with more aggressive dynamism and resolve, manifesting greater exposure. Compare the sedate and almost pastoral Melody Noir, the eponymous Dream Opera, and Lyra’s Lake (Greek Song) on the north side with the kinetic and immediate Show Me Everything, You Look Like Rain, and Afraid of Nothing on the south side. Each painting tells some story and imparts some emotion, and together they suggest an overarching tension between fight and flight, frontier and refuge. Yet they are not didactic: Shah incorporates ample visual ambiguity into her work – it is decidedly abstract – and thus relinquishes plenty of interpretive control to the viewer.
Epitomizing this deft balance is the arresting 36 x 48-inch diptych Let Ruin End Here, which greets viewers as they enter the gallery and looms as the exhibition’s signature piece. Of the paintings shown, it is the most suggestive of the figure and assertively composed. Thematically, it is at once overtly threatening and firmly hopeful, reflecting – as the title’s plea also indicates – a keen and duly alarmed perspective on the contemporary world. Two android hulks, one seeming to reach from one panel to the next to tap the other’s notional shoulder, appear poised either to destroy each other or to make amends and save the masses below. Perhaps they signify a state or a monster or, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, both, the Leviathan now having freakishly split into two hostile parts that imperil all they rule. Am I going full Philip K. Dick or Stephen King, reading too much into the painting? Maybe you think so. Blame Shah. No – congratulate her.
“Mary Shah: Dream Opera,” Rick Wester Fine Art, 526 W. 26th Street, Suite 417, New York, NY. Through December 22, 2022.