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PRINT January 2002

Robert Storr on Jerald Ieans

JERALD IEANS ISN’T A NOVICE, BUT HE’S PRETTY MUCH new to New York I first saw his work almost a decade ago in several private collections in his hometown of Saint Louis and at the local gallery that represented him. There, in 1993, he appeared in a group show alongside Julian Lethbridge, Glenn Ligon, and Christopher Wool, among others. His closest affinities were with the elegant Johnsian painterliness of Lethbridge—and, by association, that of Richmond Burton and Terry Winters—rather than the grittiness of Ligon and Wool. Back then, Ieans's paintings came in two basic varieties, both insistently material, both exquisite in their fashion. The first and larger body of work consisted of tinted waxen canvases covered with subtly tonal ellipses in loose but even distribution. The more surprising paintings—the second type—were plywood reliefs coated with translucent, seemingly still-gooey layers of Elmer's glue over which were stenciled similar ellipses in cake-frosting-rich oil pigment. The former were deliberate, nuanced, and lovely, but I liked the latter best because of the pronounced discrepancy between optical allure and slightly repellent tactility.

Ieans's most recent work is all suavity, all optical seduction, but it has paid off its debts to Johns, Lethbridge, et al. and assumed a more expansive aspect. Seen last season in Thelma Golden’s “Freestyle” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, these large-format abstractions are made up of looping biomorphs superimposed one on another as if Silly Putty in dropdead shades of blue, green, salmon, beige, and brown had been shot out of a pump-action splatter gun. In fact, Ieans draws fatty paint across the picture plane in brush-grained sheets whose outward spread is contained by hard-edged French curves. Visible under each of these layers is the contour and grain of the layer that preceded it, so that the whole composition shivers not only where the edge of one monochrome blob skirts or overlaps the edge of another, but in the silken abrasion that takes place, so to speak, “between the sheets.” Meanwhile colors have their history, and if Ieans’s forms recall the Surrealist-influenced work of Elizabeth Murray or Carl Ostendarp, the moody hues he currently favors are closer to those of Jazz Age muralist Aaron Douglas-muted chromatic echoes emblematic of Ieans’s sophistication.

How much hedonism can painting take these days? Dave Hickey’s answer seems to be “All it can get”—and Ieans would have been a prime candidate for a place in Hickey’s Santa Fe pleasure dome, “Beau Monde.” However, given the almost ickiness of his Glue-All reliefs and the increasing ambivalence of his color, Ieans’s pleasures have their disconcerting dimensions, and his good art manners barely contain youthful energies of more restless and eccentric kinds. Surely there are things to look forward to, but right now these tensions make for very handsome pictures.

ROBERT STORR is senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he has organized numerous shows, including retrospectives of the work of Tony Smith and Chuck Close. His much anticipated “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting” opens at MoMA next month (see our interview with Storr on page 104). Throughout the ’90s Storr coordinated MoMA’s “Projects,” an ongoing program devoted to exhibiting the work of contemporary artists. Among the shows organized by Storr in this series were projects by Tom Friedman, Ann Hamilton, and Franz West. A frequent contributor to Artforum, Storr is the author of the monographs Philip Guston (Abbeville, 1986) and Chuck Close (Rizzoli, 1987).