New York

Leslie Wayne

Last year, Leslie Wayne curated a group show with the demurely categorical title of “Painters,” placing her own work in the company of paintings by artists such as Milton Resnick and Jake Berthot, among other, less-well-known cultists of the hand. If that’s really what she means by “painter,” however, then she’d best find a more pertinent rubric for herself. I’m reminded instead of what Cézanne is supposed to have called Courbet: “A builder. A crude mixer of plaster. A pulverizer of tones. He masoned like a Roman.” Wayne is capable of treating paint with great delicacy, as the brooding atmospherics of Red Rain, 1992, attest. But in paintings like Freefall, 1992, or Breathing, 1993, it is treated very much as physical stuff to be thrashed, twisted, and displaced while still in a semifluid state, and these pieces are most typical of her work.

So it’s clear that despite the work’s diminutive scale (most of the paintings are about 9 by 12 inches), Wayne is no intimist. She manhandles our preconceptions of what small paintings are about with as much severity as that with which she works the paint itself. Restraint, delicacy, sensitivity, and the rest are not at a premium. The paintings seem to have been conceived theatrically, and what’s playing are not exactly drawing-room comedies. Rather, these are baroque pageants or Wagnerian operas full of extreme situations, extravagant gestures, and opulent rhetoric. The thick, relieflike masses of paint Wayne builds up serve as actors, scenery, and, for that matter, even curtains. Sometimes knots of paint take on quasi-figurative poses, as in The Poem is a Substitute, 1992, in which the torsion of the central mass suggests a swooning body. Moments of concealment and revelation keep the plot thickening, with layers of paint breaking open as though under unbearable pressure from the colors welling up beneath them, or turning themselves over like skin being flayed. There is the baroque affinity for ruins, exemplified by The Edge of Desire, 1992, with its globs of paint crushed down to the bottom of the picture—painting as the collapse of painting.

What keeps all this from disintegrating from its own hyperintensity may be the limit set by the firmly objective or intransigent plane of the wood support. Paradoxically, this support gains its ability to serve as the metaphorical “stage” or “backdrop” for these theatrical doings, simply from the way it otherwise asserts its literal facticity. Such crossing or fluctuation between metaphorical and literal understanding is very much to the point of Wayne’s paintings. The paint is pushed to maintain its sense of brute materiality just as it is pulled to spin out complex and free-ranging associations. If the incredible variety of browns that dominate these paintings begin, thanks to the corporeality of their impasto, to take on fecal overtones (more compellingly, to my eye, than the rather benign cake frostings John Miller confects), that could be precisely because shit is a cardinal metonym for base matter that nullifies meaning or value. Painting, it seems, is this endless circuit of abject meaninglessness monumentalized into exalted significance and collapsing back into vile dejecta. Wayne gives it to us full force.

Barry Schwabsky