Critics’ Picks

Nicole Wittenberg, Interior 2 (Rear View), 2010, oil on canvas, 25 x 42”.

New York

Nicole Wittenberg

Freight + Volume
97 Allen Street
May 24–June 30

On the black-painted walls of “The Malingers,” Nicole Wittenberg’s debut solo exhibition in New York, thirteen canvases from the 2010 “Interior” series reiterate images of stagelike rooms. Eight paintings depict a palatial bedroom with a curtained oval bed on a stepped platform. Five others show a large, brightly lit room with two incomplete chairs that expectantly face an opening onto another, shadowy space. In the latter works, splotches cover the floor and walls—perhaps representing a decorative pattern on carpet and wallpaper, perhaps some kind of spattered debris. In both series, the images essentially repeat from canvas to canvas, save for minor changes in details, color (in a limited palette consisting almost entirely of black, white, gray, and red), and the way Wittenberg has handled the medium, as if attempting through the repetition to come to grips with a place half remembered from a dream.

In a group of portraits, mostly in black and white, Wittenberg has elided her sitters’ features or left them incomplete. On one large square panel, titled The Countess 2 (London on February 12, 2012), a mass of brushstrokes barely coalesce into a face that recalls Picasso at his most surrealist. The artist renders her subjects while chatting with them on Skype, and her distortions seem like translations of these people’s movements over time, or of the vagaries of digital transmission. Yet, while hardly likenesses, they convey a sense of confrontation with another being.

Wittenberg’s art walks a knowing line between lens-based realism and gestural expressionism, between the fresh observation of contemporary experience and the reflexive deployment of art-historical convention, between the creamy sensuality of paint and the dry facticity of description. Similar territory has been trod before, particularly by Europeans such as Mamma Andersson and Wilhelm Sasnal, but, in her best works, Wittenberg gives it an odd oneiric spin of her own.