New York

Magnus Plessen

Almost all of the nine canvases in Magnus Plessen’s recent show include the form of a hand, frequently in multiple: a squat, glovelike shape, often truncated at the knuckles or just before the wrist, usually out of proportion to and floating free from the paintings’ human figures. As symbols go, it’s an obvious one, represented in accordingly clumsy fashion as a simplified glyph of unmodulated color or in white silhouette. Spiel (Game), 2009, pictures two people seated at a small table on which are stacked three such palms, proposing the body part as food, game, or currency.

The press release ties the motif to the artist’s tactile sensibilities, but more tempting is to read the palms as self-surrogates, notches of presence that intimate just what, to put it baldly, he can accomplish with his hands—an allegory that, in its very unsophistication, throws his considerable skill into relief. Now midcareer, Plessen has talent to burn. His undertaking is unremarkable in summary: easel-size oils depicting, to varying degrees of legibility, the genre’s time-honored standards (reclining females, riders on horses, domestic interiors). Even his variations on this project seem establishment. The relatively recent annexing of nods to the consumer world, such as a washily rendered Coke can or a collaged cigarette-pack label, is Rauschenberg vintage. And Plessen has a signature brushstroke—of how many contemporary painters can this be said? Regular and rectangular, it appears either as a chunky bar, built up and scraped down with a palette knife and applied in horizontal or vertical rows that backdrop form, or as a series of smaller, tapelike dashes, more opaque and generally used for outlines.

From within these confines unfolds an exploration of pictorial space, actual and illusionistic, that feels startlingly fresh in its ambition. Station 3, 2009, offers up an almost bewildering technical compendium. A young man’s head, his hollow features evoking Saltimbanques-era Picasso, emerges from a block of brown louvers whose bottom edge describes one contour of his torso, otherwise delimited by a chain of hands and a stretch of filmy underpainting; elsewhere are sprays of staccato dots, a pileup of pastel ticks, and spectral stretcher-bar traces. Such encyclopedic mark-making could come across as didacticism or ostentation if it weren’t assiduously in the service of an inquiry into the disposition of mass on a flat surface. The bands in Front/Side/Back, 2009, disavow depth even as the staggered hang of its two component canvases establishes a horizon line, while the progression from Ohne Titel (Untitled), 2008, to Leiter (Ladder), 2009, in which a similar supine female acquires heft via a wider swath of surrounding brushstrokes and the addition of a ladder to the arrangement, evidences a procedural working-through that is almost poignant in its diligence.

Plessen’s scrutiny of the operations of seeing is as self-conscious as his dissection of representational procedures. He seems to be moving away from choked, striated backgrounds in favor of aired-out compositions on expansive white grounds whose outlined forms give themselves up to deciphering less readily; whole areas of Kondensmilch (Condensed Milk), 2009, and Konversation (Conversation), 2009, for example, are abstract. The painter once noted, in discussing an earlier series of self-portraits, how “empty spaces form at the edge of my field of vision.” Indeed, many of his new paintings conjure the blind spot, located at the point where the optic nerve meets the back of the retina, that all humans possess. It is a gap for which our brains compensate naturally, but Plessen’s best works incarnate the filling-in process, deftly replicating the complexity of the mechanisms of sight.

Lisa Turvey