New York

Caio Fonseca

Charles Cowles Gallery

Caio Fonseca’s semaphoric abstractions, collectively entitled “Tenth Street Paintings,” 1992–93, perform a skittering dance across waxy canvas skins, weighing surface against rhythm. As venerable in appearance as works by the masters of European Modernism, they look as if they had been made in the Picabian machine age, rather than produced by an American now in his early thirties. Fonseca possesses an authoritative visual vocabulary of buoyant geometrical forms, but his resolutely formal manipulations keep them tightly reined and break little new pictorial ground. Nonetheless, he constructs harmonic systems that infuse his canvases with an appealing and palpable energy.

For instance, in Tenth Street #6, 1992, an ecru, bucket-seat-shaped form occupies center stage of a Rube Goldberg–like assembly as jerry-built as it is solid. In Tenth Street #2, 1992, a rectangular plank bordered by squiggles and painterly strokes rises from a foreground constructed from various shades of white like a roughly hewn two-by-four nailed to a weathered fence. This form, which recalls African fetishes, reappears in Tenth Street #4, 1992, bearing a high “forehead” and certain facial characteristics that give it the look of a windup toy crying out to a cosmos of green ephemera. Allowing thin, horizontal rivulets of paint to grid his overlaid grounds, the artist regularly makes his canvases resemble aged, paint-chipped floorboards from whose layered depths emerge saw-toothed verticals with their own visual interest. By carefully plotting the application of layers of paint to canvas and then deliberately scarring the surface, Fonseca relieves it of a flatness he seems otherwise inclined to worship. His is, in fact, a hybrid style that formally marries his art-historical antecedents to an esthetic that reclaims and reconfigures the tropes of Modernism. His colors generally run to earthy tones of yellow, brown, and red, though at times they depart from this palette, as in Tenth Street #15, 1993—a taxicab-yellow flight through a broken grid.

Tenth Street #8, 1992, perhaps the show’s most striking and sophisticated work, is at once more complicated in structure and simpler in tone than most of the other work on view. It gets a boost from the artist’s use of formal arrangements that recall (as Brooks Adams points out in his catalogue essay) Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson, 1916. Though evocative of Kasimir Malevich’s work, the black, gray, and white geometries of Tenth Street #14, 1993, seem less concerned with spiritual values than with the more decorative ones of, say, an Eileen Grey rug. In the end, Fonseca’s emergence on the scene, however engaging, was too closely tied to tradition to make his first solo show the high-wire act for which he has apparently been in training.

Linda Yablonsky