Judith Simonian's show of recent paintings at Ed Thorp Gallery give the impression of an artist who wants to have it all; abstraction and representation, painterly heat and cool remove, spiritual transcendence and messy materiality, coherent space and spatial disruption and forms alternating modeled and flat. Much of the liveliness of these paintings is in the tensions, interplay and dialogue between these potentially competing streams of thought and feeling.
The imagery in the paintings is drawn from life, memory and photographic sources, (including vacation snap shots, travel brochures and film stills), creating a clash of the experienced-poetic and predigested banal. As to the handling of the paint Simonian brings an almost Richterian range of painterly language; heavily brushed, glazed, washed, poured, scraped, splattered, masked, taped, drawn, dabbed, squeegeed, squiggled and peeled. Her handling alternates constantly between aggressive and tentative, assertive and questing and fluid and awkward.
The entire enterprise has a strong collage aesthetic including actual collage elements, which are oddly often buried under paint, only occasionally surfacing as either a break in the picture space, or as a sharply defined form in the paint melee. It is apparent, however that Simonian's visual choices are not haphazard, but thoughtful and organized as evidenced by several instances where we see smaller and larger versions of the same essential arrangement of elements.
Mountain with Flags, 2013, Acrylic, collage on canvas, 20h x 30w in.
Mountains with Flags, relatively small at 20 x 30", depicts the pinnacle of Mt Everest, presumably culled from a postcard or travel brochure, in a slather of green, pink and grays; not the traditional or objective colors associated with the subject. Lining up with the ridge and then cutting across the peak, is a row of flags, which suggest first Buddhist prayer flags, but then laundry on a clothesline. The flags formally flip-flop between being visually integrated into the image and discordantly sitting on top of and outside the picture.
Another Everest based painting, Ski Lift, reveals more of what Simonian is on about in the disruption of the base image. Here, a toxic looking curtain of puce, duck green and baby blue paint is slathered over the heart of the mountain. Collaged shards of flag, again, float in and on top of the paint fall, inviting thoughts about the futility of hubris and the vanity of spiritual tourism. In the lower right hand quadrant of the canvas a once masked out area reveals the paintings lower strata and gives the painting its title, depicting, as if buried under the mountain, a crudely drawn ski lift against a sky that echoes the pink and green from above. This interface between nature and manmade elements, the sublime and the banal, suggests both the broken dreams of romantic idealism and the ecological degradation born of our need for extreme adventure and endless frontiers.
Ski Lift, 2013, Acrylic, collage on canvas, 66h x 58w in.
Big Catch, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 44h x 60w in.
Six of the paintings include fish as a central element and the weirdest of these, and largest at 44 x 60", is Big Catch. A relatively naturalistic image of a swordfish horizontally bisects the canvas. Above the fish is a field of shimmering silver water, punctuated by three vertical bands of golden reflection, hinting at idyllic nature. The fish is depicted with gaping mouth exposed lying across a spatially vertical slab of pink and gray beach rock, which in turn resembles a cross between a microscopic view of bacteria and an unnamable and bizarre gelatized desert. The fish paintings on the whole run the gamut from the pleasantly decorative to the comical skewering of our unnatural relationship to nature; in particular, Fishing Arena depicts a bright blue and red rimmed ovoid pond with clusters of fish pushed up against the pond barrier, as if close inspection of this strange container will yield the secret of escape.
Fishing Arena, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 27h x 36w in.
Themes of containment and dreamed of escape thread throughout the imagery in these paintings from the far-flung escape of the Everest paintings to paintings titled after vacation locals and depictions of posh or kitsch interiors. That the proposed idylls are consistently punctured by breaks, holes and disjunctures in the pictorial space conveys the feeling of complacency in the face of impending disaster. I'm also struck by the absence of figures in the interiors as if we are looking onto a celluloid ghost world. Alternatively, the sense of these disparate images, plucked from the etheric glut at our fingertips speaks to the degradation of poetic imagination; that in our world one image is as good as another, neither more nor less meaningful. The pleasure here is that Simonian is finding poetry where it doesn't seem that it ought to be, while pushing painting to the edge of what it can hold. The broad menu of imagery, style and approach that she calls upon, combined with the critical awareness of our apocalyptic comfort makes Simonian a painter of our time.
Two Red Chairs, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 50h x 66w in.
Judith Simonian, Recent Paintings is on view at Ed Thorp Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue, 6th Fl, NYC, until June 1, 2013
All images reproduced with permission of Ed Thorp Gallery