New York

Nancy Dwyer

Semaphore Gallery

These recent paintings extend Nancy Dwyer’s interest in anonymous urban scenarios. In each, single or grouped figures culled from photographs and other media sources are rendered with an illustrator’s rapid contour line and placed on chromatic fields. However, their specific interest—the one distinguishing them from Dwyer’s previous works—lies in the introduction of a new convention, a quotation of ’60s-Minimalist shaped canvases and color-field formal divisions. Thus each painting involves a triple play of conventions: one, the use of common, though never explicitly codified, images; another, that of a lowbrow commercial style; the third, a historical reference pertaining to a particular cultural sphere. In their operation, these levels are all reduced to their common stylistic component, which is obfuscated by the play of Dwyer’s amalgams.

The images are taken from a range of everyday scenes which exist on the edge of the stereotype: there are, for example, two children playing pattycake, a female bodybuilder, a goalie, a skydiver, a group of children pointing at some celestial apparition (here titled North Star). Vernacular views, they are directed to our consumerist interest, to the rhythm by which anonymous, unlocatable, but highly recognizable images are easily appropriated by the spectator through identification and projection. One “knows” these images, though they have yet to enter the iconic field; it is Dwyer’s formal devices which serve them up for contemplation. This is done through her deft descriptive line, which encapsulates the essence of a character or gesture, and through the flat chromatic fields which displace or decontextualize the images. The latter function emblematically, keying up the superposed figures; there are broad planes of orange, green, mauve, beige, and other muted hues, often arranged in intersecting divisions which are framed by tondos, tilted cubes, and different irregular shapes supplementing the standard rectangular form.

In the best of these paintings the conjunctions of figure and shape work together, reinforcing the depicted image. There’s a witty undercurrent to Canned Heat in the way the figures are controlled by their cylindrical surround, and to Goalie, where the odd, goonlike form is offset by the unstable trapezoidal shape. Here, shape and hue maximize the equivocations of the imagery, thus accentuating Dwyer’s gifts, which lie in the suggestion of those inexplicable powers resident but not initially noticeable in gestures, expressions, or scenes. Elsewhere, Dwyer’s addition of conventions results in mere superpositions of layers; to play an abstract style against a figurative convention, a highbrow mode against a popular technique, or an art-historical quote against a vernacular emanation only rehearses known terrain, adding nothing to Dwyer’s imagistic rhetoric. Indeed, the triple play of devices seems more “about” her attempt to sink a hook in the great fishpond of media and general cultural references—the common waters of contemporary artists—with no clear idea of her catch. The paintings hover on the edge of an important statement on the way we use, or consume, images, just as they fall short of any comment on the role of these different conventions. They indicate a need for Dwyer to take a stronger, more considered position on her subject.

Kate Linker