New York

Karin Davie

Marianne Boesky Gallery / Mary Boone Gallery

Over the years Karin Davie has done several variations on stripe painting, but now (in paintings at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, works on paper at Mary Boone) she seems to be putting that well-worn modernist trope through what geologists call a metamorphism—the kind of deformation that occurs under the effect of extreme heat or pressure. The vertiginously looping bands of color in these paintings almost give the illusion of having been formed by compression. Works like Under and Gush (all 1999), which are horizontal in format and comprise horizontal loops, somehow evoke paintings of vertical stripes—vertical paintings, in fact—that have been squeezed at their top and bottom, so that the horizontal format seems less a literal fact about the paintings than the result of some intense pressure. Similarly, the vertically formatted Fever and Distraction feel as if they had once been horizontal works with horizontal stripes but were then pressed in from their sides. The lines bend almost to the point of breaking, or so it would seem, if it weren’t clear that their elasticity must be almost unlimited. Which is to say the paintings are, most pleasurably, both physically and mentally disorienting. (The way Davie’s titles seem to link that effect to the romanticism of sappy song lyrics is misleading, though; hers are the paintings of a cool customer, not a sentimentalist.)

So these are illusionistic paintings, not literalist ones of the kind usually associated with Color Field abstraction. Visually, though, their effect is not of flatness, of the painting’s surface alone, for the sense of compression occurs not only across a two-dimensional plane but also in depth; the sequences of lines tunnel back into an imaginary distance here, bulge out toward the viewer’s space there. And while Davie’s paintings have often conjured the body through curving sets of stripes creating organic forms that might well be thought of as breasts or buttocks (that her earlier paintings were generally diptychs allowed the body’s symmetry to be mimicked all the more easily), these new ones address a particular body—the viewer’s. Especially in the horizontal paintings, which can be up to ten feet long, the scale, along with the brash but richly inflected color, creates an almost dizzying sense of movement, as though you were riding their rapids in person.

It’s this sense of physical engagement—evident in a different way in the fundamentally Abstract Expressionist looseness of hand and painterly daring—that really sets Davie’s work apart from that of the various neo-Op practitioners with whom she is sometimes grouped (for instance, in “post-hypnotic,” the exhibition currently traveling the country). Those artists’ work typically has a taut, finicky quality that betrays a commitment to an essentially head-oriented dose of nervous stimulus rather than an encompassing experience of space. But as canny as she certainly is about exploiting such relatively untapped resources in painting’s history as Op, Davie’s aspirations remain more closely linked to Pollock than to Vasarely.

Uptown, at the Mary Boone Gallery, Davie showed a series of twelve pieces, each 49 by 38 inches and comprising around twenty mirrored glass blobs attached to a heavy sheet of paper. Although deemed separate works, they functioned as an installation. Each glass orb seems to reflect the contents of the entire room in a distorted way but gives the impression that the whole scene is focused perfectly clearly somewhere within, inaccessible. So each blob represents utter self-containment yet reflects and is reflected by the others—forming something like a society of Leibnizian monads. As you looked into the glass orbs and saw the lineaments of the surrounding space warped in them nearly to the point of illegibility, they became instruments of reflection (pardon the pun) on the kinds of spatial distortion practiced in Davie’s paintings—distortions that record the intersection between the work’s self-containment and its absorption or intussusception of the world.

Barry Schwabsky