New York

Donna Moylan

For several years Donna Moylan’s work has expanded its investigations of the image in several directions at once. The eleven new paintings shown here, all from 1993, seem to focus on one of these directions in order to push it to its very limit. Moylan’s other threads—such as the painting Substance, 1989—are valuable and one hopes they reemerge some day, but at the moment it is a pleasure to watch her perfect her layering of multiple levels of imagery among which there are subtly shifting relationships. This is perhaps her central mode, one which novelist Alberto Moravia, in a rare foray into art criticism, called “neo-mysterious painting.”

Some, like Post-Atomic Painting and The Memory Palace, involve an abstract or quasi-abstract working of the ground with incidents of figuration occurring here and there in irregularly shaped areas of color applied over the ground. The effect is a post-Modernist pastiche related to—among other things—some works of Vernon Fisher and, more distantly, David Salle.

These pictures recombine and complexify elements previously seen in Moylan’s work, such as, for example, an irregular, accidental-looking stain of color overlaid on, say, a cityscape, pointing somewhat inconclusively to the asymmetry of nature and culture. The present works are more involved, the irregular color areas now support a new layer of cultural imagery, implying a three-tiered view of reality. An underlying, abstract “order of things” gives rise to nature, which in turn leads to (or provides) the condition of possibility for culture. The tiny and seemingly fragmentary glimpses of human life convey a fragility and poignancy in their evanescence. Striking a positive note, they are like tiny, poetic homages to a life both beautiful and fleeting. In other paintings, such as The Legend, transparent figures barely separated from the ground meet and conduct interpersonal transactions that may be more deeply felt than their brief purchase on existence would justify.

In still other paintings, such as The House that Jack Built, the relationship between the layers is reversed: the ground presents a deep, illusionistic architectural interior, over which the level of abstract patterning lies as if encroaching on the foreground, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of works by Julian Schnabel and Ross Bleckner. The play between flatness and illusionistic depth recurs rather humorously in The Peaceable Kingdom and The Major Life. In three other works, Moylan poses interesting questions about the nature/culture dichotomy: the Empire State Building from the cityscape of NY Axis Mundi becomes the widespread mythological motif of the tree at the center of the Earth, while Eye and the Mountain shifts the cosmic center of the universe to the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.

As always in this artist’s work, there is a fine balance between feeling and analysis. Moylan combines a love of and dedication to the medium of painting with a keenly questioning intelligence to produce works that are at once critical and esthetically pleasing.

Thomas McEvilley