New York

Pat Steir

Droll/Kolbert Gallery

There is something very dark, very pessimistic about Pat Steir’s new paintings and drawings. Her previous work incorporated disturbing elements in an ensemble of marks and feelings; this variety has given way to a focus on despair. Dense, black squares, which were small sections of older paintings, have taken over. And although the “X” motif is not present visually in the paintings, it becomes instead implicit throughout. This “X,” or crossing out, used to appear alone, or it cancelled irises or roses, or marked out entire sections of a painting. It represented, in context, the artist’s (unique) capacity to choose, to change, to discriminate, to censor the work—to deny. Not only was this “X” a necessary aspect of artistic sensibility; it was an expression of Steir’s doubt, and denial. Steir’s new work takes up the theme of denial and expression, of giving up possibilities in the face of their being rendered meaningless; and this, without having a clear idea of where to go or what to do.

The new paintings are dark, reddish brown, with dry blue, black and yellow. White strokes, carefully placed in the center of square canvases, are thick in the center, with drips and thinning on the edges, as if the painting had separated (not as if Steir painted them that way). Steir uses a very shiny, glaring glaze, applied with and over the paint, which shuns the viewer: she turns its opulent lure into a revulsion, a “natural” technique used perversely. A fingernail-like brushstroke in pastel “enamel” proliferates in one painting, and the random placing does not stop the strokes from looking overdetermined, over-deliberate and forced.

One painting, which is a series of discrete square canvases, begins at the beginning, so to speak. A raw surface is a writing pad for the indication, or implication, or the thought process, a dissection of possibilities: “frame wishes love poem picture meaning beauty love truth why to make my mark cutting drawing painting glazing history intention aura.” Lists expose the elements of art: technique, esthetics, desire, criticism. Desires which are strictly the personal domain of the artist contrast with the social implication of desires, of beliefs. One painting is titled Van Gogh and Goya. Steir’s lists set up paintings as arenas where analytical elements and intuition battle to cancel each other out.

There are drawings whose grid structures are filled in with alphabets. The letters begin in a highly individualized, stylized, florid script; by the midpoint of the page, the letters have turned into convention: block letters, thick and rigid. The initiation of some kind of inner narrative degenerates into syntaxless jibberish: repetition of letters, phrases which lose their visual and symbolic meaning as they die away on the page. “I am Pat Steir” written in a hypnotic incantation is not an establishment of identity, but a denial of self, plunging into emptiness, a self without center attempting to retrieve meaning by a text. “I am Pat Steir, lapsed believer.” It is words which prove the denial of the visual. But Steir does not hold up words as a solution either: she is constantly returning to their visual properties, or their meaninglessness.

Steir returns to the ambition “make my mark”—a creation of something personal and visual, and visual other self. When she uses the alphabet, it is no throwback to Johnsian convention; Steir is always present in the work, not once removed from it. By denying the meaning of others’ use of things, fighting against the lure of convention (lists), by turning the viewer away, Steir conjures up her mark, although it might not yet be a visual marking. There are some small etchings, with light silvery gray and pale yellow hatchings, which look like representations of “coming into being.” By constantly searching and criticizing that which is given by convention, Steir goes forward to deny it, in an attempt to preserve orly what is her own in the process.

Jeff Perrone