View of “Valentina Stieger,” 2012.

View of “Valentina Stieger,” 2012.

Valentina Stieger

View of “Valentina Stieger,” 2012.

Valentina Stieger’s recent exhibition “Good Figures” found new power in familiar ideas. Exploring a high/low dialectic that is now a well-trod path by marrying the austere forms of modernism to a kitschy domesticity evoked by quotidian household materials, her work still incites a frisson of recognition. The show’s constellation of works employed the bright or banal emblems of the hausfrau—pillowcases, a clothes-hanger railing, decorative plaster—to more art-historically driven ends. But even if the works’ persuasive abstraction began between quotes, that is not quite where it ended.

Consider, for instance, Untitled (streamlined for dispatch), 2010–12, a line of six abstract “paintings,” their surfaces evenly covered with flat, decorative patterns, hung systematically in a neat row. Their colors would appeal to any grandmother, whether in Arizona or Basel: muted pinks, sandy browns, lavender, dull turquoise. This Mediterranean palette evoked the abstraction of both 1950s France and 1980s Los Angeles, but conjured other painterly referents with equal breeziness: Impressionism, Rayonism, Matisse, 1970s pattern painting. Each work was a kind of diptych, with two rectangular stretchers hung one above the other, creating a creaselike horizon at their center (though both fields are nearly identical in color and pattern). Only the size of the panels hinted at their unexpected origin: Each was a patterned pillowcase, which the artist stretched over a wooden support and shellacked to achieve a slightly shiny surface.

What else was achieved? Functionally, these were abstract paintings; at the same time, they were mere gestures pointing lucidly to painting from a skeptical distance. Their drab, uninflected surfaces and kitsch patterning compel the spectator to accept their banality and beauty simultaneously. Here the frame escaped the easy labels typically employed for painting: Not a window, not a monitor, not even ocular, it was a pillow—also rectangular, but an altogether different metaphor. On two adjacent actual windows in the gallery, however, Stieger had hung Untitled (decoration looks ahead), 2012, a filmy white curtain that could be read as another textile-as-painting, though with a vertical line separating the two parts in this case. From the floor rose a thin length of chrome steel, elegantly bent into angles, evoking a body in flight. Conjuring the stylish modernist line, in which the suggestion of a body might take shape from a single curvature, the work is from the artist’s “Clothes Rail” series, 2011–: “abstract sculpture,” then, at its most laconic, allusive, and pedestrian.

Another piece, Untitled (nervous tendencies), 2012, leaned against a nearby wall, its enormous pale “canvas”—actually a white-painted wood panel—nearly touching the ceiling. Breaking its monochromatic surface was not color but gesture: a series of hand-size swirls of white decorative plaster that punctuated and mucked up the achromatic ground. If this was another attempt at pattern making, at simulation (of painting’s meaning, its visual qualities, its past), it was less explicit. In her embrace of a certain modernist formal vocabulary, Stieger may not be far from such peers as Ida Ekblad or Thomas Sauter, but the opacity of her graceful simulacra individuates her work. The show’s sober, playful title, meanwhile, invoked the spectral female body at its center, as well as a kind of economic arithmetic. Indeed, modernism’s formal tropes are good equations all—why not see how they still add up?

Quinn Latimer