New York

Heather Guertin, We Are All One, 2014, oil on canvas, 68 × 48".

Heather Guertin, We Are All One, 2014, oil on canvas, 68 × 48".

Heather Guertin

Heather Guertin, We Are All One, 2014, oil on canvas, 68 × 48".

With “Development,” her second solo show (following in quick succession from her first, held this past January in Brooklyn), Heather Guertin confronted viewers with ten largish paintings packed into a fairly small space. The paintings are each quite specific in palette and touch, yet, united in format, they work together like a gang. In the gallery’s entryway, a lonely monitor, discreetly placed to the side, presented a story by the artist, an excerpt from a book in progress called Not Yet Titled, Cambodia (all works 2014), also published as a preface to the show’s catalogue. “In Cambodia we were looking for our own authentic modern house in the international style that was popularized by Le Corbusier,” says the tale’s narrator, “albeit one that would be crumbling and strewn with bullet holes and graffiti.”

I can’t blame Guertin for waxing ironic about the quest for the authentically modern. What, these days, could be more self-defeating than that quixotic mission? But her irony is a way of continuing that search rather than abandoning it—something that aligns her both with painters a generation older (Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl) and her own age (Phoebe Unwin, Amy Feldman). Like those artists, and Sillman in particular, Guertin makes abstract paintings with a teasing relation to figuration. Several of the paintings here, among them Immaterial and Polar Modernism, featured a large ellipse that nearly fills the rectangle of the canvas; it’s only that pair of tiny oval spots inside the ellipse—cartoony little eyes—that transforms the oval into a head, and in the most flippantly schematic way. Yet by this gesture, the painting seems to undermine itself, and maybe, as well, Michael Fried’s portentous concept of “facingness”—though I suspect Guertin might be more sympathetic to Willem de Kooning’s more pragmatic maxim: “If the picture has a countenance I keep it. If it hasn’t, I throw it away.” But Guertin, unlike de Kooning, isn’t taking any chances—she makes sure the painting looks back at its viewer. The same deliberately unconvincing conjuring of human presence becomes almost eerie in We Are All One: Against a ground made of four horizontal bands—ravishingly pale hues in alternating cool and warm tones—a sort of Newmanesque zip made of red polka dots contains a squiggly form that we are asked to read as a figure, owing to the two eyelike loops near the top of it and a form at the bottom that resembles a foot en pointe; the rest is whatever you will.

So it’s no insult to Guertin if one can’t help asking if she’s a serious painter or a joker. Her work invites such questions. Besides, she identifies herself not only as an artist and writer but as a stand-up comic. Yet it’s hard not to wonder why she’s so mistrustful of her own impressive facility with a brush and sure feeling for color—to wonder what’s behind this nervous tendency to make light of what she can do with them by adding these painterly emoticons. I’m reminded of what von Heyl told the artist Shirley Kaneda: “At the core of my being in the world, and my being an artist, is this feeling of falseness, which feels paradoxically like the one truly existential sense of self left, or possible. And it is this paradoxical twist that gives me a new lease on pathos.” For Mark Godfrey, this feeling of being an impostor can be the key to contemporary painters’ ability to productively redeploy the tropes of modernist painting but “stripped of the rhetoric that once surrounded them.” I’m not so sure, though; the new rhetoric of what Godfrey calls “refusing conclusions” seems close enough to de Kooning’s aversion to finish, for instance, and none the worse for that. Guertin speaks of wanting her paintings to have “a studied spontaneity, like comedy.” That’s an idea of comedy that makes the jokes dispensable; the humor is all in the delivery. Guertin has the capacity to put humor into her paintings with a straight face, if she wants.

Barry Schwabsky