Zurich

Lucy Stein, Gambas al Pil-Pil, 2011, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 35 1/2".

Lucy Stein, Gambas al Pil-Pil, 2011, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 35 1/2".

Lucy Stein

Galerie Gregor Staiger

Lucy Stein, Gambas al Pil-Pil, 2011, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 35 1/2".

After an interviewer in 2009 asked the then thirty-year-old Lucy Stein how her career had thus far been marked by feminism, the Glasgow-based English artist noted, “I fully expect to be marginalized and then become a grande dame and then a ‘treasure’ at the age of eighty or so, the usual trajectory for a woman making so-called raw paintings.” Her acerbic answer evoked a rainbow of greats: from late-life images by painters Maria Lassnig, Alice Neel, and Joan Semmel, to sculptors such as the Louises Bourgeois and Nevelson—all scraped-back hair and jutting, geometric jewelry—each of whose careers might fit this depressingly familiar narrative, “raw painting” or not. But Stein’s offhand remark also contains the wit, wile, ambition, irony, and, yes, feminism of her practice itself, which attends to the history of painting and then takes it, with virtuosity and intelligence to spare, into the addled and brilliant present.

The cogency of this show stemmed in part from the way it was made, during a residency at Gregor Staiger last summer, which turned gallery into atelier. A glamorous lassitude defines the paintings and drawings, a droll and drunken reverie that alludes to an era—the time of D. H. Lawrence, say—when the show’s title, “The Last Bohemian on the Costa Blanca,” might have been met with seriousness rather than raised eyebrows. An Expressionist palette—greenish yellows, terra reds, Balearic blues—looked back to Emil Nolde and sideways at Kai Althoff and Andro Wekua, making luridly poignant the elegant modernist figuration it wrought: a triangular Picasso profile and side-eye here, a Surrealist guitar and donkey there. The placid, thickened paint and mucky gesture of Stein’s earlier works here gave way to smooth and swirling brushwork—a new confidence underlined by uninterrupted surfaces.

If the paintings move between autumnal atmospherics and more Mediterranean warmth, their figurative references do too: from German Expressionists to Spanish modernists and Surrealists. The latter references should not be surprising. Growing up, the artist spent summers on the sunburned coast near Alicante; she curated a show there just before her stay in Zurich. The resulting works thus feel echt español, yet riddled with Stein’s usual psychological probity and formal exactitude. A pinkish painting called Gambas al Pil-Pil (all works 2011) proffers a bikini-clad girl riding a giant gamba, or shrimp, and exudes confident weirdness and a touch of sadness. Ballad of Perpetual Heartbreak features a woman and a stocky man in white underwear on the sand (shades of Picasso’s late beach photographs with Françoise Gilot), a guitar hanging behind them. Both works thrust the viewer into charged yet laconic scenarios, fantastical yet never simply whimsical. While the paintings sometimes have the look of fables, there is no clear moral line here, except to painting itself. Instead, Stein’s works propose her singular cosmology as it dovetails with European modernist painting’s notorious movements and actors.

Elsewhere, drawings feature a nod to British surrealist Eileen Agar and jolts of cursive Spanish handwriting, revealing Stein’s signature wit. But her Spanish theme never gets heavy-handed, and her seriousness and skill allow the paintings to skirt any faux bohemianism for a decisive showing of contemporary painting’s possibilities. If one feels the physical tug of elders such as Lassnig, or Nolde or Picasso, the references are neither too reverent nor simply ironic. Stein’s winning sensibility bespeaks a studious joy in painting’s past achievements and a capacity to see their unbridled potential for future use.

Quinn Latimer