New York

Dona Nelson

Michael Klein, Inc.

Dona Nelson’s recent show of anxious, cloth-sculpted and poured-enamel abstractions was as dislocating as it was inviting. Subterranean moods bubbled up through loosely strung muslin forms, dividing and multiplying acrylic surfaces in dramatic sweeps of dead-black and green or blinding-white enamel. As the title of one piece, Greedy Winter, 1993, might suggest, Nelson’s paintings threaten to swallow themselves along with the viewer’s eye. Their odd compositions make havoc of natural order in a disjunctive combination of art and artisanship, undermining the works’ meditative beauty with anarchistic bravado.

While her canvases reflect the artist’s immersion in a mutable, private topography, like that in the nippled, almost Motherwellian Moonglow, 1993, she perversely refuses a focused center. Her apparent willingess to let the materials take her where they might struggles with the desire for control. It’s a seductive face-off that works to great effect in paintings like the rapturous Octopus Blue, 1991. Here, an enormous muslin form with a tentaclelike snout swooshes around the lighted cobalt surface in a jubilant frenzy, at once loving its world and aching to escape it. A marvelous sense of play dominates Picture Red, 1993, where a sad, five-foot clown head in a pleated and pigment-soaked “hat” isolates itself within the equally colorful passages around it, becoming its own muse. In Polkus, 1993, festive looking, flat blue-and-yellow disks suggest a wonderland in which sun and moon shine together through snow-covered trees.

But in Une Petite Etude (A little study, 1992) Nelson’s all-or-nothing approach threatens to obliterate an otherwise intriguing use of space. Its brightly hued shapes of dyed string and muslin chase each other around a murky black-and-blue cosmos like chattering, unsupervised children who all want to share the same plate. There could be more than one painting here: delicate, sculptural forms seem haphazardly juxtaposed with strictly pictorial concerns. The same could he said for the object-laden pair Dreams Turn and Dreams Travel (both 1993), canvases bedecked with muslin snakes, figures, and other small objects glimpsed in memory’s trajectory. Unfortunately, these works were hanging so close together, in such a small room, that it was difficult to appreciate either as a whole. Still, the two lonesome cloth figures occupying the bottom corners of the former were particularly affecting—lovers enacting a scenario of enforced separation. Their longing was an emotion common to Nelson’s ambiguous show, in which aspirations are at loggerheads with actual relationships, material or esthetic—as frustrating a confrontation in paint as it is in life.

Linda Yablonsky