New York

Elliott Puckette

The whole basis for Elliott Puckette’s manner of painting—it cannot yet be called a style—lies in the “paraph,” the apparently decorative flourish added to the signature of a formal document, “originally,” as the OED tells us, “as a kind of precaution against forgery.” In Puckette’s work, this evocation of a nonrepresentational element in writing (on which Sigmar Polke, too, once based a group of paintings) has been accompanied by a reversal of expectations about how writing should appear. Against a black or colored ground, the figure is white, formed by scraping away from a wash of color over a gesso ground. It therefore represents a subtraction from the inky field rather than an addition to it (a reminder that the Greek graphein means both “to write” and “to scratch”). As a result, the figure is the rendering of an already-formalized gesture rather than its immediate embodiment. Here is a clever and multileveled mannerist twist on the notion (derived from Abstract Expressionism) of the painterly gesture as a sort of signature, expressed without a hint of theory-driven dogmatism but in a spirit, rather, of elegant lightness; and the sinuous interlacings of Puckette’s lines, their charmingly antiquated, vaguely patrician aura enlivened by resemblance to a certain style of customized car decoration, convey a sensuality all the more beguiling for being expressed as restraint.

All this was at first promising; but the narrowness of Puckette’s strategy was troublesome, inducing a notable sameness from painting to painting, lending them an emotional thinness and intellectual brittleness. By now, four years and three one-person shows after her work first caught our eye, the artist’s attempts to circumvent the limitations of her manner through minor variations—a widening range of colors and more variegated, atmospheric application of the ink wash for the ground, the use of tondos and ovals as well as rectangular supports—are beginning to feel a bit desperate. At first I thought the work had grown enervated through repetition, but now I suspect it’s simply that familiarity has exposed an inherent weakness: painting for painting, these canvases are still as sharp and understatedly ceremonious as ever.

Still, it’s a shame, because one badly wants paintings of such intelligence and finesse to be more than that. But inducing her one trope to live up to, and if possible outstrip, its potential will take more from Puckette than just a bit of tinkering with the details. Some recent drawings, illustrated in the accompanying catalogue, suggest a way out. Drawn in ink on old, already written-on paper, they force Puckette’s traceries to encompass multiple levels of scale and incorporate linear elements that already contain a cursive aspect linking back up with the grand yet almost comically nervy flourishes of her homeless paraphs. Denser than the paintings, these drawings suggest a more challenging, complicated, and satisfying realization of pictorial space without relinquishing anything of their insinuating semiotics.

Barry Schwabsky