New York

Tracy Grayson

Christine Burgin Gallery

Painting, of late, has been alternately despised and romanticized, hauled out of the closet and trumpeted as the savior for lost souls in one instant, only to be debased as a corrupt songster for unethical powers in the next. Is the practice capable of sustaining genuine emotion or simply generating more kitsch?

Tracy Grayson walks this fine line and in the process gives us some of the best of both worlds. All ten of the paintings in his show are images of idyllic picture-postcard mountain scenes, standardized as 60-by-60-inch oils on wood. Like the Heidi-land fantasies that flitter in the minds of vacation dreamers, these scenes are perfect, beautiful, and untouched by corrupting civilization.

At the same time, Grayson debunks this mountain idyll. Presented side by side, these paintings are interchangeable. Not only are they essentially versions of the same scene, but every square inch of the paintings receives equal attention; the distant mountain is as detailed as the flowers in the foreground. Grayson employs a painter’s trick that subtly denies the centrality of the observer: he admits atmospheric perspective—the blue haziness of the far distance—but preserves an infinite depth of field. The background is never allowed to dissolve in washy blurs but remains as accessible to the viewer as the foreground, giving an air of unreality to these apparently straightforward representations. This device discourages the viewer’s belief in the image. Neither the subject matter, the paint handling, nor the presentation allow the viewer to be fully seduced. But these works do not distance the viewer in the usual way either; there is nothing sophomorically cynical in the way they are painted. In the age of mechanical reproduction, the image has been torn from its origins; it is empty, a cast-off shell, yet the formal possibilities of its painterly replication are still up for grabs. The opposition of empty image and genuine paint creates a kind of neutralized effect, with the right hand giving back what the left took away.

This standoff between opposing forces is clearly Grayson’s way of finding a ground zero from which to operate—one that is mined neither with overly saturated contextual meaning nor with codified formal rules. He has mixed oil and water to come up with his particular recipe for landscape painting. The images could be read as kitschy, but the painting style is too obsessively deliberate; they could be seen as sentimental, but the coolness of the images is not. This dialectic creates a no-man’s-land, and the paintings themselves are not easily assimilated. Like the world from which they emerged, they are forged from discontinuities and contradictions. For this vacation, there is no guidebook.

Dena Shottenkirk