New York

Nancy Pierson

Condeso/Lawler Gallery

The figure and in particular the portrait represent a vision of art that shifts message, method, and form, and requires more than formal analysis. Regardless of the level of technical and compositional virtuosity, perception travels beyond the surface planes and pigments to construct a narrative for the character to reside in. When impeccable technique is balanced anxiously with the most discomforting, penetrating psychological content, it is an exceptional moment indeed. In this exhibition, which included six large paintings and four drawings, Nancy Pierson presented a group of characters that disturb, repel, and finally seduce. These homely, strained, suspicious, and fearful faces are both ennobled and humiliated by the circumstances of their lives—the conjunction of inherent qualities and random, unforeseeable events. A fine line divides lunacy from sanity, the freak from the normal man on the street, and Pierson’s paintings and drawings sustain this bleak tension.

Inspired by a collection of Depression-era photographs of people waiting for vendor licenses, the paintings monumentalize the human condition’s marginal qualities. In Broken Span, 1986, a male figure stares dejectedly, shoulders sloped beneath the weight of an ill-cut, baggy black suit. Directly in front of the figure dangles a surveyor’s plumb bob, which appears to bisect its forehead. The skeletal outline of a steel bridge behind the figure heightens the tenuous balance, the poised verticality of the bob. The painting is like the meditative silence of a hypnotic trance prior to some violent upheaval of memory and emotion. In Wheel, 1986, a blue plate appears to levitate (or fly) across the wide forehead of a broad man. The figure’s obesity—the stretched flesh laden with fat—strains the horizontal dimensions of the canvas. Pierson’s rich, luminous colors and layers of glazes give the character iconic and ironic power. The most perfected, painterly techniques record the awesome imperfections, the checkered history of this great round face.

In the charcoal drawing 31, 33, 35, 1986, the heads and shoulders of a crowd of anxious, impatient men waiting at some munificent agency’s window are depicted from the welfare worker’s viewpoint. The queues have broken down and faces press toward the glass partition. These, like many other Pierson figures, are presented in absolute frontality. The viewer must confront directly their painful overeagerness, a sense of displacement, and a quiet, somewhat redeeming feeling of preserved dignity.

Confrontation with a “freak” generates terror, sympathy, and relief. Pier-son’s paintings cause similar but more complicated responses. These characters may be slightly flawed or have failed some test of conventional acceptability, but they are not freaks. Pierson doesn’t allow us the comfort of thinking them absolutely different; in fact, they are a bit too familiar and like everyone else. The artist’s compassion takes our encounter with this work past initial fear or repulsion to a rich esthetic and psychological experience.

Patricia C. Phillips