New York

Paloma Pelaez

David Beitzel Gallery

In a statement about her first exhibition in New York, Spanish artist Paloma Pelaez mentions her admiration for art of the trecento, Japanese landscapes, Picabia, Max Ernst, Byzantine icons, ornamental textiles. Her works bear this out. In ST, 1995–96, for example, a wrapped figure with a halo (Lazarus?) seems to be rising from a sarcophagus, surrounded by silver crosses. And there are other unacknowledged influences as well, notably Matisse (whose dancers are directly referenced in Adormidera Negra [Black poppy, 1995]), de Chirico and Chagall. While a sense of surreal menace akin to Ernst’s infuses many of her paintings (especially La Muerte de la Reina [The death of the queen, 1994], with its dogs devouring the sleeping monarch, and Ada, 1993, in which a child, her back to us and her face hidden by one arm, twirls in a dancelike motion, perhaps to ward off a nearby bird), they don’t appear so harrowing at first glance. This is in part because of their conventional imagery, such as the figures of young girls seemingly traced from nineteenth-century engravings (another favorite of the artist) that can give the work an initial, airy pleasantness, while leaves, saints, flower patterns, minstrels, wheels, draperies, and ladders are depicted in a Mediterranean palette of calm earth-tones and dry pastels. But Pelaez’s complex mix of the wicked and the felicitous echoes in her articulation of color. Among a number of larger canvases, two considerably smaller pieces hold their own, as though finding their field of action condensed: one bursts forth with a blood-clot texture (S/T II), the other with vibrantly contrasted fields of yellow and ochre (Paisaje Zen [Zen landscape, 1997] )—chromatic intensities only latent in the larger works.

Pelaez’s paintings reveal a sensitivity to the energies feeding into our contentious, pluralistic present. Painterly abstraction is essential to this effect; suggestions of objects such as the bed (or is it an altar?) in La Muerta de la Reina are often made using the drips and chance operations to which we’ve grown accustomed. These gestures create passages within the paintings that are the more evocative for their deliberate blurs and occasional blunt splotches. It seems ironic, given Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on the moment, that Pelaez combines its effects with an acknowledgment of older traditions, floating familiar, even romantic forms in color fields with gestural shapes.

Ironic but appropriate, since her blend of abstraction and the figurative results in almost casual encounters with the bizarre—in a beauty steeped in the past but not inflected with the preciousness and nostalgia with which it flirts. Her retreat to childhood and fairy-tale fantasies and her unpretentious use of figures from hermetic traditions (her garlands, wreaths, and her leaf and flower patterns seem to have been suggested by Botticelli), allow us to view her paintings as nonnarrative allegories. They release us to the enriched difficulty of our own interpretations after playing (as severely as she does essentially) with some of our most archetypal assumptions about art. Her visions are unflinching and relaxed, wild and measured, self-aware and subconscious, suggesting a state of amazement at having so real a dream.

Thomas Breidenbach