Contributed by Jacob Cartwright / Walking through an exhibition of Don Voisine’s paintings is like spending time with a laconic host who can still be relied upon for a gnomic phrase, or pithy observation. His reductive work has the forceful thrust of heraldic symbols or Russian icons, but the underlying quality is always one of intrigue, and he likes to throw in a few twists. In his current show at McKenzie Fine Art, he pushes this instinct further by tinkering thoughtfully within own lexicon, producing some of his strongest work in the last decade.
For some time, the distinguishing feature of Voisine’s painting has been a balance between the chromatic and the achromatic. He has developed a distinct language based on the juxtaposition of masses of black, white, and grey that are laid between bands of saturated color. Even when this relationship is reversed, whereby a central color figure is bounded by desaturated slabs, a sense of parallel dimensions remains. The achromatic passages are typically the areas of greatest subtlety and he has a noted ability to pull viewers in by setting adjoining black forms off from each other. These aspects reveal themselves slowly, often as one moves around the work.
One takeaway from the show is that blue is the new black. He has been doing a deep dive into blue for some time now. This was the theme of a 2018 exhibition at Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco, and roughly a third of the new paintings are built around adjacent blue and black passages. The pairing is as intuitive as it is logical: blue is the color on the spectrum that sits nearest to black in terms of its heavy absorption of light. Deep blues and dark grays do surprising things along their borders, challenging the perception of where each plane situates itself in relation to its neighbor. There’s a crepuscular poetry to this phenomenology, an exploration of degrees of failing light that elicits our most somnambulant sense memories.
Voisine’s name is frequently associated with some of the canonical figures of modernism and the New York School. I can’t imagine that he complains about being mentioned alongside Malevich and Reinhardt, but his connection to modernism’s more rascally progeny sometimes goes unnoticed. Hélio Oiticica and the Neo-Concrete movement in Latin America come especially to mind. One broad inference is that modernism has always been a more malleable framework than the egoistic endgame that many made it out to be. While the paintings here don’t represent a radical break with modernist orthodoxy, they do suggest that meaningful divergences can arise and proliferate.
Voisine’s early life in Maine pops up in most interviews, and it was clearly formative. The coastal state’s spare and flinty beauty seems to have fully infiltrated his painting practice. An identifiably North American artist, and his paintings evoke the elegant austerity of Shaker furniture, the Quaker marriage of simplicity with fine workmanship, and the controlled manner of American movements such as Luminism and Precisionism. It’s easy to see artists like Whistler and Scheeler in his paintings. Voisine has a deep interest in the electric blues, another uniquely American art form. Not surprisingly, he is most attracted to the least embellished versions of the music, which eschew crowd-pleasing virtuosic displays in favor of workmanlike performances in small clubs. Such venues are historically found on the South Side of Chicago, which honed that tradition into a flexible yet tightly constructed musical idiom.
Voisine’s paintings are satisfying in their sober efficiency, like the snap of a chalk line on a wall. From this perspective, minor adjustments take on an outsized significance. Voisine has long painted on panels, so the five new works on canvas or linen stand out. They remind me of his occasional works on Styrofoam, pieces that emphasize the way that his impactful imagery is always tied to a sensitivity to materials. Voisine’s practice is tightly honed, and these shifts are a quietly thrilling reminder that he is an artist in total command of the interplay between his ideas and his craft.
“Don Voisine,” McKenzie Fine Art, 55 Orchard Street, New York, NY. Through June 25, 2023.
About the author: Jacob Cartwright is an NYC-based painter and independent curator who writes about art.