New York

Lois Lane

Barbara Toll Gallery

New Image painting is surely among the vaguest rubrics ever applied to 20th-century art. Isn’t any reenvisioned, reinterpreted, recast, or reseen image, by reasonable definition, “new”? The term was coined in the mid ’70s to call attention to a resurgence of figurative painting among younger artists, during a period otherwise dominated by various antimaterial tendencies, and it is in this context, if perhaps none other, that the label had some meaning. The laconic flavors of New Image painting, for instance, were distilled from Pop (and seemed to have affinities with the “minimalist” fiction of writers such as Ann Beattie and Donald Barthelme), its emphasis on process was the residue of the Conceptualism that preceded it, and its more sensuous textures were part of the Expressionist legacy.

New Image, in short, meant a hipper strain of home-style traditionalism in American painting, a sort of apple-pie-à-la-mode mood, the nostalgic suburbanism and occasional neoclassicism of which may one day be regarded as heralds of high-Yuppie design style in the ’80s. New Image painting reached its apotheosis in a 1978 show by that name at the Whitney Museum. It was a show that I continue to associate pleasantly if blurrily with images of swimming pools, pets, tools, and yard-sale statuary. It included works by Robert Moskowitz, David True, Denise Green, Nicholas Africano, Joe Zucker, Susan Rothenberg, Neil Jenney, Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Hurson, and Lois Lane—artists who were never again seen as a group, never mind as a movement.

Yet Lane, who was barely 30 years old at the time of the Whitney show, remains a New Image painter. Her original motifs—little golden calves on distant pedestals, small orphaned smocks marooned on clotheslines, sails and ships, red crosses, does and deer—have reappeared in various combinations in more recent shows, along with her black-to-bluesy palette. Her technique, too, continues to involve a play between slick and mat areas of paint, as well as between more or less clearly discernible images and the faintest of pentimenti. This show of new, large, and lusciously painted nocturnes suggests the work of an artist in her technical prime. The best of these paintings also suggest an increased gusto in the studio that one is tempted to describe as macha. Untitled (ship, red cross), 1991, was arguably the most beautifully painted work in the exhibition. With its preponderance of indigo, alternately shiny and flat, dramatically inflected at center field by the red axes, as well as by an illuminating, foamy bath of white that produces some remarkably beautiful lighter blues, this painting signals a welcome, more operatic command of depth and illusionism. But the undeniable romanticism of the theme seemed oddly unsupported, neither embraced, lampooned, nor redefined by the rhythms of composition or brush. I found myself summoning mind’s-eye images of Ed Ruscha’s ghost sailing ships from a few years back because, for all their deadpan restraint, they trigger emotion. A number of other interesting Lane efforts also wound up trailing off in some theatrical midrange. Untitled (pink lady), 1991, and Untitled (dancer), 1989, for instance, are both blackish paintings with central, stagelike areas of grayish light from which boldly silhouetted, single figures emerge as if struggling to part the curtains: for some reason reluctant to cue the lighting booth and tell the orchestra to start in with the “Bolero” so that they may dance.

Lane, it seems, is still shy—reluctant either to decide to let loose or to commit. Is this ambivalence the register of an antagonism of process and product? Of abstraction and figuration? Of color and monochrome? Of action and motif? Over the years, this amply able artist has continued to paint and draw, then erase, overpaint, scumble and, to this viewer’s exasperation, equivocate.

Lisa Liebmann