Avis Newman

The interesting thing about Avis Newman’s recent large works on canvas is the shift from drawing to painting. In making that move, she calls into question the idea of ’80s painting as a predominantly male, post-Conceptual return to heroic, expressive figuration exemplified by such artists as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Newman’s work draws its look from Paleolithic cave paintings, using marks of varying thickness and texture to suggest the human form. Her canvases are large and unstretched, covering much of the gallery’s walls in a way that gives the show something of the air of an installation, an interior space within which the marks exist as impulse, thought, and sensation, as much as the site on which those marks are made public as metaphors of desire. In concert with this feeling, the various elements within individual works combine and disperse in ways that recall the fluid space and time of dreams. Completing the show was a series of small drawings in an adjacent room, which picked up on the same images and themes that Newman had developed in the works shown in the main exhibition space.

Insofar as the work does not picture some thing, its imprecision is a strength, denoting a refusal to identify marks with external reality in any direct way. Newman thus keeps us from misinterpreting representation as authoritative statement. She is using a paradigm that is becoming increasingly fruitful for women artists involved in the debate on representation and the expression of desire, one whose aim is not simply to note difference and demand its assimilation within an existing cultural view but to place difference at the root of expressive activity itself. Newman pushes the conceit hard, questioning both the determinateness of representation and the primacy of the visual itself. These works, writes Jean Fisher in the accompanying catalogue, encourage the eye to “sense the opalescence of the surface as temperature rather than color,” a privileging of the tactile over the visual that echoes Luce Irigaray’s assertion of the need to resist the scopic in view of its essentially phallocentric nature.

To say that Newman’s work “carries forward” this debate might sound somewhat uncharitable, as if one were characterizing the efforts as merely illustrative of some predetermined thesis about the efficacy of indeterminism. But the show fails to satisfy for just such a reason. The paintings are large but not expansive; and although the marks are varied, their scope is controlled. The fundamental flaw is the paradoxical rigidity that obtains between mark and canvas. There is a constant disjunction between the ambiguity of the marks, in terms of their ability to represent some object or other (or some figure or other), and their fixity in terms of a physical relationship with each other and with the ground on which they are laid. Each line, each incident, far from occurring as a natural phenomenon within the ostensible dream world of the final painting, is put down on top of a carefully prepared background. There is never too much or too little but always just enough to contain the drawing. Because of this, the canvas tends to function as dead support and the overall work does not breathe or move in ways that the refusal of those same marks to be some thing demands.

Michael Archer