New York

Laura Sue Phillips

Eich Space

With contemporary abstraction ranging from the sneering insincerity of Damien Hirst’s spin paintings and the earnest circuitry of Peter Halley’s Day-Glo cybernetics to David Reed’s virtuosic lyricisms, it was initially hard to know how to read the hushed, serene work in Laura Sue Phillips’ first one-person show in New York. With titles like “Willow,” “Climbing Vine,” and “Angelic Blue” and a press release that emphasized “color, light, and surface,” it required time and quiet attentiveness to get beyond the suggestion that this work, a group of thirteen relatively small, unprepossessing stripe paintings, simply falls on the lyrical, colorist end of today’s spectrum of abstract painting.

Climbing Vine, 1997, typified the three or four strongest pieces in the show. Nine half-inch vertical green stripes divided a square wood panel, the areas between the stripes remaining seemingly bare. A mixture of oil and wax, the bands of paint were applied with astonishingly nuanced degrees of thickness, from minutely sculptured ridges of impasto to brief passages where the grain of the wood ground showed through like a cake whose icing had been partially licked away. Archivally treated so that it would still appear unprimed over time, the wood panel functioned as both ground and pattern. It gradually became clear that Phillips’ subtle interrogation of both the surface and grain of the wood was making legible the fact that her composition takes its rise from the wood’s self-sufficient objecthood, yet it simultaneously (and paradoxically) renders that autonomy dependent on the paint’s mediation.

This interlocking of elements, wherein the wood support is allowed to be itself by way of the painterly marks, was apparent in most of the paintings on view. The differences among them were subtle to a fault—a question of color, scale, and nuances of brushstroke. With its skein of horizontal pencil lines drawn beneath the vertical bands, Silver Mink, 1997, was most distinctive in this respect (the work quickly brought to mind Agnes Martin, a painter whose enchanting serenity is surely behind Phillips’). In Angelic Blue, 1997, the aquamarine stripes were slightly thicker and more opaque than the bands in the other paintings. The underlying wood grain was consequently less apparent, but this opacity drew attention to the sides of the panel and to the fact that it (like the other panels) consisted of glued layers of five or six thin wood pieces of different shades, which together made up a sort of “marginal” stripe abstraction of their own.

In the end, the internal dialogue between paint and wood seemed to be carrying on, albeit sotto voce, about many things at once: the mutually defining realms of nature and culture, the carceral (inside) and the free (outside)—and how these ostensibly distinct realms are membranous, interpenetrating, and curiously diaphanous.

Thad Ziolkowski