New York

Susan Crile

Kornblee Gallery

Susan Crile’s show at Kornblee is the most straightforward gallery show I’ve seen this season. In tracing a path between color-field painting and the New Realism, her work has a crucial, if minor, resonance with that of Matisse.

The freedom that Matisse’claimed and granted when he freed color from figure was also the possibility of seeing paintings as presenting themselves primarily as paintings rather than views of the visible. Similarly, color-field painting may be seen as seeking the possible role of color in that presentation, which might be described as the meaning of color in painting. In a way color always presents itself first and foremost.

Crile seems to be keenly aware of the achievement of color painting. Perhaps she is equally concerned with the limits placed on modernist painting by Cubism, because the image she works with clearly relates to the pictures which portrayed Cubism as a dead end, Jasper Johns’ flags. Johns posed the difficulty of choosing an image that could reintroduce space into a painting without contradicting what we know about paintings as objects, and the way we know it. Crile’s images don’t quite overcome that difficulty but they do state it very clearly and in doing that they suggest that abstraction is the necessary condition for a pictorial problem and its solution to be stated “simultaneously” in a painting, at least in painting after Johns.

Crile uses close-up soft focused images of one or more Oriental rugs. They are fairly thinly painted in oil, and are frequently loaded with small jarring juxtapositions of color which are resolved by a larger coherence. There is a very pleasing accord in these paintings between the character of the image and the way literal and virtual aspects of the pictures are made to confirm each other. Johns’ flag is an image which suggested no special disposition in the world. We are, however, accustomed to seeing rugs either on the floor or hung on a wall, and almost nowhere else. Crile’s images read as images because they include folds and wrinkles which contradict (and call attention to) the tautness of the canvas surface. This is to say that space is introduced into these paintings by the opposition of an aerial view of the image to our frontal view of the painting; because the image is of something we are used to seeing from above, the illusion of folding and wrinkling generates an image by contradicting the pull of gravity on the painting itself. Perhaps it is no accident that Jevel, the largest picture in the show, has a certain feeling of landscape about it which is reinforced by the distribution of color: browns and pinks at the bottom; blues, yellows, and white toward the top. Landscape in painting, at least since Cubism, also carries the suggestion of a view that is or must be simultaneously frontal and aerial, which makes it a kind of privileged subject matter.

Finally, Crile’s paintings have a pleasing and controlled sensuousness that is apparently dependent upon the soft focus of the image. Not many paintings one sees these days register so precisely a nongestural touch of the artist’s hand.

Kenneth Baker