New York

Melissa Gwyn

Richard L. Feigen & Co

Melissa Gwyn’s paintings look like enlarged slides of microscopic organisms whose apparent bloblike simplicity is belied, under closer scrutiny, by their teeming busyness. With titles invoking the body and its peculiar materiality and images suggesting growth, disease, and regeneration, Gwyn reveals the thin membrane separating the beautiful from the abject.

Gwyn began most of the six works that comprised her recent exhibition by pouring oil paint on horizontal wood panels. The paint formed puddles, which she manipulated by pushing the paint and tipping the panel. After the paintings began to dry, forming a thin skin, she set them upright and molded the paint with her fingers until, through a combination of agency and chance, it revealed shapes—organic forms such as flowers, fruit, and leaves, but also vague, nebulous contours that imply parts and functions of the human body (flesh, organs, cells). The resulting works, frequently involving multiple pourings, have an impasto-like surface, suggesting the onset of putrefaction.

There was in fact a metastatic quality to the paintings, as their afterimages seemed to alter impressions of neighboring works. Dysplay, 1999, is a luridly multicolored painting of a pod-shaped specimen set against a purplish background. Placed across from My Faberge, 1998—in which a fuzzy ovoid whose painted surface has been made to resemble withering leaves, dried petals, and mulch floats in the bright yellow rectangle of the panel—the “thing” featured in Dysplay looked more virulent, as though it were undecided whether to swallow another shape or turn in on itself and disappear. On another wall, Posy, 1995, presented a bouquet of flower shapes in a reddish mass. Near the pink, droopy, pocked, Play-Doh-like organism in Sun On Your Back, 1996, Posy’s florid offering took on an aura of bloodiness and incipient danger.

Drawing on the long tradition of vanitas still life, the works explore questions concerning temporality: what it means to exist in time, to take place, to flower, wither, and drop off. Even the labor-intensive quality of the paintings suggests duration rather than immediacy. But Gwyn adds a slightly menacing, malignant twist to still life. Ma Maw, 1999, is heavily bordered by ribbonlike swirls of earth-toned yellow, orange, and green that evoke the feel of a dense forest. At the painting’s center is a bright green void or clearing, an enchanted but slightly scary place where Gerhard Richter might meet the ghost of Henri Rousseau. Another piece with an empty, fluid core, Aperture, 1998, features what looks like a moving sea creature either being propelled or shackled by its frilly green and black tentacles—a compelling ambiguity that characterized every painting in the exhibition.