Houston

Nancy Haynes

Lawing Gallery

Nancy Haynes has characterized her painting as an “emptying out,” a concern with absence and transience that she pits against a post-Minimalist structural logic. A key element in her work has been light, which she doesn’t so much represent (though there are moments when this is largely the case) as enlist in her cause. In some paintings of the past decade she has used phosphorescent paint so that they literally embody luminosity.

The titles of Haynes’ works recently on view—such as sociology, 1996–97, archaeology, 1997, and musicology, 1996–97—name various human sciences, but each canvas is a vacant site, the possibility of knowledge rather than its content. If these paintings suggest, following Foucault, that naming a discipline brings the subject of its inquiry into being, I see in her –ologies as well a droll connection to Barnett Newman’s quip that aesthetics is as relevant to artists as ornithology is to birds. Like Newman’s birds, her paintings are rigorously indifferent, so self-contained they resist categories of judgment.

Although they do not seem to follow any formula, the works are variations on a consistent format: rectangular fields of vibrant, sometimes acidic color open up a vague spatiality with hints of an underlying structure. In anthropology, 1997, for example, a translucent, deep blue rectangle in the center covers subtly painted horizontal bands, while vertical zips of lighter blue press in at the sides. Generally, the picture planes divide into horizontal registers in which substrata of a deftly drawn vestigial grid deliver and suppress pictorial information at the same time. At times looking like a series of light-damaged film negatives, at other times like disordered books on a shelf, the pictures suggest the empty forms of narration (one is left guessing whether these narrative sequences were never developed, or whether they have been obliterated). The surfaces show the evidence of Haynes’ scraping of the paint, and that action, in which applying a medium also entails removing it, mirrors the way narrative progresses, veiling and revealing the story in a certain rhythm. The bumpy texture of her coarse linen breaks passages of scraped neutrals and grays into a stippled fade of foreground, a technique she borrowed from Seurat’s charcoal drawings. Haynes’ casually fragile mark is a trope of Seurat’s pointillism, but rather than recall the poised stillness of that style, it suggests the opposite: passage, speed, transience.

In linguistics, 1997, a big, greenish-yellow rectangular field in the center of the canvas leaves vertical bands of evil yellow phosphorescent underpainting at either edge, which, when the gallery lights are cut, seem to detach from the material ground. The glowing surface—think of a television set shut off in a darkened room—pushes the three-dimensional body of the painting into the wall. The oddly theatrical experience suggests James Turrell’s light works, but where Turrell gives light a physical presence, Haynes reverses the process and dissolves the physical into an immaterial luminescence. Illuminating nothing, Haynes’ light is meant only to be seen, not to allow sight.

Michael Odom