Moira Dryer

IN ONE OF HER FEW PUBLISHED STATEMENTS, reprinted in the catalogue accompanying this survey of her work from the last three years of her life, Moira Dryer (1957-92) claimed “an emotive identity” for her work. This may seem surprising in the face of her cool, witty, and often whimsical paintings, but it shouldn't. Dryer was just as distant from the theory-besotted neo-geo that emerged around the same time as her own work as she was from the chest-thumping demonstrativeness of the neoexpressionism that preceded it. Besides, “emotive” is different from “emotional”; it evokes the actor's task. And good actors know how to project a feeling by playing against its grain: to portray someone in love, for instance, by performing the effort not to betray one's emotion.

Dryer herself named the feelings animating her work as loss and desire. Both are manifest in a painting like Demon Pleasure, 1989, whose wavy horizontal lines, primarily green and white but with varied, mostly pinkish undertones, were apparently wiped down while the paint was drying, so that the whole looks blurred, as if seen through a misty pane of glass—except that there are a few streaks that were left alone, and there the wavy pattern appears with crystal clarity. Curiously, in these gaps the undulations seem to be at a definite distance from the painting's surface; it is the predominant blur that seems to define the picture plane, which is in turn surmounted by two cambered passages of hot pink at the top and bottom of the rectangle as well as a single band of the same color that meanders in from the top right and heads toward the center. There is an aching desire at the heart of this painting—the desire to touch the simple clarity that hovers, lost yet not entirely absent, somewhere off in the distance.

During the period covered by this show (which premiered at the Forum for Contemporary Art in Saint Louis but was organized by the Art Gallery of York University and constitutes the artist's first significant exposure in her hometown), Dryer's work became less overtly playful. At the time I wondered if her illness was sapping her energy. Now I see it differently: as though she were pressing forward to give form to the “midcareer” she was afraid she'd never have. In some of the earlier paintings here, like Part II of the Tourist, 1990, or the extraordinary My Eyes, 1989, the supplementary hardware (mostly handles) that had always been part of Dryer's vocabulary was still there to anchor the object in real space. By 1991, when she was making paintings of intransigent yet out-of-focus vertical stripes, such as Having a Hate Wave and Front Line, the hardware (in these works, grommets and an iron shoe-shine footrest, respectively) seems to do the opposite—the objects function like repoussoirs that put the paintings at a distance. That they never quite stay there is their proof of life.

Barry Schwabsky