New York

Warren Isensee

Audiello Fine Art, Inc.

Warren Isensee’s paintings draw on his memories of domesticated modernism. Evoking the interior color schemes and the bright prints of ’60s and ’70s suburban TV rooms (with Marimekko-patterned draperies and kidney-shaped coffee tables) and kitchens (with their boomerang-motif Formica countertops), Isensee’s canvases are rendered in flat decorator hues: unsaturated blues and greens, apricot, chocolate brown, powdery pink Structured on a system of reversals, in which opaque solids abut outlined open forms and mingle with loopy ribbons of color, the works are conceived with the thoughtful, almost mathematical attention to theme and color variation found in Ray Eames’s crosspatch-design fabrics: yellow next to blue, but never touching red, etc.

The impersonal and flawless exactitude of Isensee’s technique is, unexpectedly, achieved freehand, with brushes and without the aid of tape. That this precision renders quasi-geometric, even almost organic forms is also surprising. Isensee’s favored shapes are irregular, egglike ovals resembling hard candies or smooth stones. In the bubblelike I and I, 2000, these ellipses are regions in which to explore slight variations in shades of orange; while in Faith Value, 2000, they suggest backyard patio stones or tiles at the bottom of a swimming pool. (The painting’s vaguely cruciform composition also hints at Christian symbolism, though Isensee seems uninterested in the mystical aspects of abstraction.) In such works, the forms crowd close together, but each oval remains isolated; in others, looping lines create spaces that are less discrete. With their juxtapositions of complementary colors, these more complex allover compositions are the most chromatically risky. In Flow Motion, 2001, for example, sections of tan, green, and red are corralled by elastic curves of lavender and orange, each hue somehow balancing the next. While busily staking claim to the space of the canvas, the activity in these works remains tightly constrained within the borders of the support.

If lively, hip modernist abstraction is everywhere these days (thanks not least to the Bridget Riley renaissance), Isensee is a standout in the field. His kitschy color combinations and the gentle wordplay of his titles—Lattice and Tomatoes; Mood River—exude cheerful notes. Indeed, a review of the artist’s previous show (at Tricia Collins Contemporary Art in New York) noted that the abundance of gaiety transformed the gallery space into a “chamber of cheer.” And yet there is a seriousness to Isensee’s precise technique and a kind of stay-inside-the-lines tension in his buoyant compositions. While it’s true that the ubiquitous retro motifs are used like readymades, it is unfair to criticize such design-oriented work for a lack of psychological content. Nostalgia is generally underestimated as a generator of meaning—critical, substantive meaning anyway—but here, carefully abstracted, it works just fine for Isensee’s formal purposes.

Meghan Dailey