New York

Rebecca Purdum

Jack Tilton Gallery

In shifting the palette of her large abstractions, Rebecca Purdum has managed to avoid the too-easy transcendence that her earlier work seemed to threaten. The paintings in Purdum’s last show, with their brushy bunched-up clouds of blues and whites and grays, suggested nothing so much as swirling turbulent mists of color about to part and reveal—what? Any answer seemed doomed to anticlimax. Now, though, Purdum has brought a broad range of color into her work, from reds and oranges to purples and greens. As a result there’s a new sense of emotion in these paintings, some of which seem impressionistic in their color effects; a blur of violet contends with a splash of lemon yellow in the small NYC 252, 1989, and flecks of red seep through a chilly pale blue in NYC 264, 1989.

There’s an almost dizzying, ecstatic sensuality to these paintings, recalling Monet’s light-shot seas of color. Purdum applies paint directly with her gloved hands, rather than with brushes. This technique contributes to the broad, atmospheric qualities of her images, as well as to the sense that the paint has simply deposited itself on the surface of the painting, or perhaps has seeped through from inside. Moreover, Purdum often uses sweeping rhythmic gestures as she paints, the kind of stroke one might use to wash a window, with the result that the blocks of color in her paintings give the sense of having been shaped, molded by hand, as if they were made of modeling clay.

At times these swirls of color suggest landscapes, as in Quenquam, 1989, with its sky blue and watery greens. In other works, the mists of violently colored paint take on the melodramatic air of Turner. In still other cases, though, Purdum’s figures appear solid rather than ethereal, related to the soft biomorphic shapes of Henry Moore or the smoothed-out forms of boulders. Purdum’s best pictures remain on the edge between these readings, neither figural nor atmospheric, flesh nor spirit. This is a tricky balance to maintain, but at least for now, in many of the works here, Purdum suggests that ambiguity of substance. These lush, unabashedly emotional works make full use of the affective vocabulary of paint, while for the most part avoiding, by choice or circumstance, the conundrum of figure. The result is, finally, that one is thrown back to the painting itself. But one keeps returning to the image, however unresolved it may be, wanting more from it, wanting to know what such a beautiful light shines on.

Charles Hagen