May 18, 2012

Abstract Painting ... of all People!

The Art of Gili Levy

Islands oil on canvas 2012

In this essay from May 2012, I discuss Gili Levy’s work in terms of “abstraction.” Since then I’ve realized the word has almost no meaning any more. I have since taken to calling the general gist of this work “transparent narrative.” It is not strictly abstract — that is, non-objective — for there is figuration and perspectival space here as well. In any case, it is an education for me, and I credit Gili Levy for introducing me and my gallery to the endlessly fascinating painting scene in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (ep, Sept. 2012)

gouache on paper 14 x 17 in. 2012

In the past ten years or so we have been seeing “abstract” or non-objective paintings that have the alacrity of conceptual art. Paintings are now being made that advance abstraction as a universal shorthand for esthetic life. This is not the defensive kind of abstract painting that seeks only to uphold the cult, but something more ambitious, more outgoing. We see paintings that hoover up discourses that not long ago were the purview of specialized “avant gardes” that avoided painting in general and abstraction in particular.

The new abstract painters are many and prolific, and they are taking to the stage of the canvas in ways that recall the first half of the last century, and make the “return of painting” in the 1980s look like a false start.

Abstract painting has a paradoxical and problematic place in modern art. It was at the font of modernity, at the birth of the avant garde. And then it was its nemesis, that content-free “safe” kind of painting of the McCarthy era and of the corporate art of the sixties and seventies. It has provided the most brilliant and the most boring events on canvas of the past hundred years.

To be sure, abstract painting has provided every decade with marvelous pictures, but it has only really rocked a few decades. It has spent long interludes as a cloistered and very demanding form of art, and it has come in frequently for bruising criticism on account of “lack of content.” Yet this is also the painting that launched high modernism in Europe and that put America on the international art map. It is the painting that gave to art a new and ineffable world.

Dancer oil on canvas 60 x 36 in. 2008
And how interesting that in our own time, when these very narratives of modern art, abstract art, avant garde art, and the historical tensions between them … have all come in for a kind of global meltdown in a brave new world, that it should be abstract painting — “of all people!” — that would now appear to be coming along to sort it all out.

And I think this aspect of “sorting things out” is what separates the present generation of abstract painters from the old schools. The navigational problems are more acute. There is a larger and rather different field of impulses and elements to integrate. There are greater pressures on the vocabulary of abstraction. Old muscles must be stretched and new muscles must be grown.

One Man Show 1 oil on canvas 60 x 72 in. 2009

The first thing I ask when I look at a contemporary abstract painting, is whether it is really an abstract painting, or just another presentational dodge in the “style” of abstraction. I look, in other words, not for artifact, not for “color” or “composition” or “balance,” and certainly not for cheeky references, but for character and intelligence. And then for a process that is convincing on some level.

I am convinced by the work of Gili Levy. She has introduced me to the work of most of the new abstractionists, and it is her work that satisfies more than most what I have come to value and expect in this kind of painting.

Levy is a relentless painter. One has the sense of paint being heaved and deployed almost violently, to trump our habits of viewing and get to the bones of a psychological process. What distinguishes her work, her signature style you might say, and what makes her paintings real abstraction and not stylized abstraction, is that Levy does not settle on novelty. The paintings “hide from the first viewer” as a philosopher once said. The impulse to “newness” for its own sake is denied, or put in abeyance, in the interest of directing the viewer to a genuine experience.

— Ethan Pettit, 18 May 2012