Rachel Howard


The paintings in Rachel Howard's second solo exhibition are variations on a theme: the color red. Yet it would be a mistake to see her as essentially a colorist. While her earlier squares of poured paint were rigorously flat and opaque, done in one go, these new, more layered works seem indifferent to the once loaded antithesis between surface and depth, frontality and atmosphere, allowing for both. Damien Hirst (who used to employ Howard to execute his dot paintings) remarks to the artist in a conversation published in the show's catalogue, “Your work is on the edge of painting and sculpture.” She takes exception to this, but the fact is that Howard uses color as a medium whose salient characteristics are density and weight—that is, she treats it more as a physical substance than an optical agent. In fact, though her work bears an obvious kinship with that of a slightly older group of process-oriented British paint pourers like Callum Innes and Ian Davenport, a more telling connection might be to the work of Mary Heilmann, who also treats color in an unusually physical manner: The horizontal stripes in her “scrape” paintings, for instance, function as piled-up “blocks” of distinct materials.

The three largest, most austere paintings here, however, recall the work of another, more distant but also more dangerous precursor. In Fecund, Alto, and Pulchritude (all works 2001) Howard has eliminated the notes of contrast she allows in the smaller canvases (lighter passages of white, yellow, or pink) and suppressed any diagonal movement of the poured paint in favor of a strictly vertical disposition. Looking at these paintings, I found it impossible not to think of Barnett Newman. The danger in evoking Newman, of course, is the potential to incite nostalgia for exalted aspirations that now seem unattainable. if not inopportune—and Howard clearly knows this, despite her weakness for lyrical titles.

One of the most striking things about her paintings is the way they suspend the pictorial force they nevertheless so grandly convey: All that luscious color is sealed off behind a slick, reflective surface. And yet it still feels very immediate—one would like to speak of presentness at a remove, were such a thing possible. But though distinct from the painting's color, this shiny integument is not exactly something added to it. Rather it is the result of what might be called an analytical differentiation within the medium. Howard uses glossy house paint but doesn't stir it on opening the can: Like a cook skimming fat from stock, she separates the gloss from the pigment and uses each in a separate stage of the painting process. This seemingly small technical matter is in fact doubly significant. Howard has taken on board the late-modernist use of vernacular materials in painting—think Stella's house paint—but by exaggerating it has warped it away from modernist straightforwardness toward a trickiness bordering on alchemy. The paint is even more like what it was “in the can” than Stella's was, yet it allows for atmospheric nuance so that the medium can once again do what Newman wanted it not to do, “manipulate space”—the imaginary space beyond the canvas as well as the psychological space between painting and viewer.

Barry Schwabsky