New York

Keltie Ferris, Facade, 2015, oil and powdered pigment on paper, 40 × 26".

Keltie Ferris, Facade, 2015, oil and powdered pigment on paper, 40 × 26".

Keltie Ferris

Keltie Ferris, Facade, 2015, oil and powdered pigment on paper, 40 × 26".

In 2012, Keltie Ferris tried to throw her body into painting—and it wasn’t working out. Gamely, she smeared her torso in paint and pressed herself against canvas, but she found the results embarrassingly direct and, at the same time, discomfitingly haunted by Yves Klein. Then, on a visit to “Now Dig This!,” curator Kellie Jones’s survey of postwar black art in Los Angeles at MoMA PS1, she encountered David Hammons’s body prints of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Hammons had coated himself in margarine or grease and then lay atop paper sheets, leaving a gluey residue that could be used to fix powdered pigment in place. While on a residency in Connecticut, Ferris tested the technique with vegetable oil, initially while naked and later in her studio outfit of jeans and a button-down. She debuted her body prints at Chapter NY in 2014 and in this exhibition presented them for the first time alongside the large-scale paintings for which she is better known.

For more than ten years, Ferris’s practice has hinged on two principal methods of applying paint. With a spray gun, she converts viscous oil paint into a fine mist that settles onto the canvas in diaphanous swaths of rich color. Then, with a palette knife or brush, she lays down chunky squares of pigment in uneven mosaic patterns. A work like W(A(V)E)S, 2015, demonstrates how these two techniques interact. Tessellated shards of red, blue, and green limn blurry expanses of pink, violet, and azure. The primary hues harden into an armature for the tertiaries, though it’s entirely uncertain where in space the latter portions reside. Their softness suggests a hazy backdrop, even as they knit together into a single standalone shape—a bouncy, flailing M.

The varied effects of Ferris’s compositions have pulled the discussion surrounding her work in two directions: down into painting’s past, and out into the technology-addled present. Critics incessantly invoke a familiar roster of proper names, relating Ferris’s gestural energy to Joan Mitchell or Franz Kline, or chalking up her high-keyed palettes to such 1980s art stars as Keith Haring and her former professor Peter Halley. In a 2012 review, poet John Yau confessed to tiring of painting’s fixation on pedigree, writing, “You wonder if there will ever be a day when lineages aren’t mentioned.” Nevertheless, he hailed Ferris as a present-day Mondrian. Meanwhile, Ferris’s paintings have also been seen as analogues for the digital. Though their mosaic daubing was inspired by Seurat’s pointillism (or, perhaps more accurately, by Matisse’s drowsier Divisionism), the massing of individual square units now presents itself to the period eye as pixelation, as if the canvas were a half-downloaded JPEG. Or, to return to W(A(V)E)S, several semitransparent rectangles float untethered from the rest of the composition, recalling the thinly layered open windows of a crowded OS desktop.

The introduction of body prints into Ferris’s repertoire should definitively, and importantly, alter the appreciation of her art’s underlying stakes. By citing Hammons, she claims not just a technique, but a critique. Often set against the colors of the American flag, Hammons’s prints are riffs on—and ripostes to—an earlier set of skin impressions by Jasper Johns. They forced onto Johns’s purportedly neutral devices a body marked by difference, or even scarred by state violence. The bound-and-gagged profile in Hammons’s Injustice Case, 1970, for instance, refers to the notorious mistreatment of defendant Bobby Seale during the Chicago Eight trial of 1969. Ferris’s prints contain no such explicitly political, or narratively legible, content. However, in works such as Ray, Robot, and Facade, all 2015, hints of her own physique—androgynous, athletic, boyishly dressed—peek through, revealing a struggle to locate a place for the body and identity in abstraction’s incessant play of figure and ground.

Colby Chamberlain