New York

Pat Steir

Robert Miller Gallery

In Pat Steir’s work of the early ’70s, the conceptual elements commented on the natural ones. When she painted a rose, for example, she would cross it out with a thick “X,” as if to suggest that so timeworn an emblem from nature could no longer satisfy our yearning for expression. The risk for a younger artist exploring the world conceptually is that she may give short shrift to physical or crea—turely existence, and miss the surprise and transcendence that arc possible when our sensations are undifferentiated by the intellect. There are still cerebral aspects to Steir’s work, but the paintings in her re—cent show, “Wind Water Stone,” increastngly reflect attempts to participate in (or reconcile with) nature, rather than to frame, mimic, or use its elements as symbols.

The titles of the paintings lead us to read them as encounters with particular, all very early, hours of the day. While the artist varies her formal devices interestingly from canvas to canvas, the six large (108 x 108") paintings share some general compositional elements. Brighter, opalescent pastel hues are introduced as the hours progress. In each work a shape like that of a large wave curls around the perimeter of the canvas, usually drizzling down the right side as though beginning to collapse. Each painting also seems to be encoded with successive layers of barely identifiable images of facial features ultimately resolving into a vast and complex portrait, perhaps that of the artist herself.

Midnight (all works 1997) is an absorbing, richly variegated black. Faintly discernible traces of orange paint form long vertical runnels in the middle of the canvas. Some small points of light dot the work’s lower portion and resemble stars, a strand of phosphorescent algae catching moonlight, or glints of light on teeth; they might even be smoldering embers in a mustache. In the painting’s upper right corner there is a large, dripping scarlet brushstroke that could be an angelfish swimming out of murky depths. In 2 am some of the orange has condensed near the painting’s center in a vivid splatter that might depict the ridge of a nose or a crucified body. The wave form is light in color, and against the dark background it is the most distinct such characteristic in the six paintings.

Just above the center of the light blue and gray 5 am, an incongruous matrix of crisscrossing orange and pink lines forms a shape like Dr. Seuss’ red fish. Its “tail” waves off into the playful skirmish of the rest of the abstract surface. Steir navigates the evocative limits of representation, and this instance suggests that our grid—making or organizing capactty, what Wallace Stevens called our “blessed rage for order,” is itself an aspect of the violent fluxes and subtle, alluring contrasts of nature. By the purple and pink 6 am, the grid feature is smaller, traced in a contrasting aqua, and suggests the nostril of this phantasmagorical portrait. The orange has contracted to a few sharp points the consistency of hard candy near the bottom of the work, nubby smears that seem to have been applied with a soldering iron, where one of them glows like the tip of a burning punk.

While the manifestations of wind and rain are the most obvious inspirations for these paintings, “stone” suggests alchemy, the processes by which one seeks to transmute natural substance. Steir’s work is naturalistic and abstract only on its surface. Its depths reveal a surreal menagerie: primitive faces and classical busts, caricatures, suggestion of religious imagery, eatures that are obscured just enough to continually elicit a terrifying wonder.

Tom Breidenbach