New York

Maureen Gallace, Clear Day, 2011–12, oil on panel, 14 × 18".

Maureen Gallace, Clear Day, 2011–12, oil on panel, 14 × 18".

Maureen Gallace

Maureen Gallace, Clear Day, 2011–12, oil on panel, 14 × 18".

“Clear Day,” Maureen Gallace’s serene and dazzling retrospective at MoMA PS1, spans twenty-five years and includes more than seventy small oil paintings, though it seems there might be more like seven hundred of them, winding through the exhibition’s second floor in an airy parade. As you wander from room to room, the succession of white walls dramatizes not just the light-flooded intensity of Gallace’s canvases and their compact proportions (which hover around the intimate, sketch-book scale of nine by twelve inches), but the inexhaustibility and expansiveness of her narrow project. The artist always depicts views of an ambiguous New England countryside or coastland (and sometimes bouquets of flowers) in a fast, smart style—Fairfield Porter with a dash of Karen Kilimnik. Gallace walks a tightrope, balancing her compositional agility and tasteful color schemes with savvy carelessness and simulated naïveté, expressed as ungainly passages of squishy paint or picture-book vistas that verge dangerously on a kind of paint-by-numbers harmony. In other moments, her jarring omissions—notably of windows—evoke another variety of amateurism, an out-of-place formalism; abstraction gone awry; a strange, even intriguingly callous misunderstanding of the sentimental import of her bucolic-postcard subject matter. 

Christmas Farm, 2002, is an extreme example. In it, frigid sun illuminates a trio of featureless brick-red buildings, their peaked roofs and the surrounding ground blanketed with pristine snow. If you squint, the painting’s floating geometry (disregard the pale-blue sky and blobby olive-green foliage in the distance) is almost Malevichian. And if you don’t squint, you might wonder what terrible things are going on inside the ominously pretty, no-escape structures of this haunted compound they call the Christmas Farm. Gallace’s slate-gray, antique-white, pinky-beige, Yale-blue, and grass-green world of breaking waves, unspoiled sand, and semi-remote domiciles is bereft of people and animals, as well as—for the most part—signs of modern infrastructure. Her simplified barns, cottages, and beach shacks hail from an indistinct time period, lending their appealing scenes an edgy genericness. Subtle shifts in individual works render them sinister, kitschy, and/or sublime.

The earliest painting on view is an anomalous, shaped canvas, an outlier also for its sooty Dutch-master patina. Indeed, Untitled (Oval with Four Trees), 1988, might be cut and restretched from an old landscape painting, its fuzzed-out shrubs and silhouetted trees resembling a slice of someone else’s background more than a freshly conceived, from-scratch work. The moody, simple image suggests that Gallace’s inscrutable oeuvre began in step with the interests of her contemporaries, motivated, in part, by a Pictures generation, appropriationist’s aim to critically sully notions of authorship and originality vis-à-vis Western painting history. But her relentlessly specific practice engages with questions of craft and tradition sincerely, too, and has long outlasted anything that can be regarded as a conventional “series.” Gallace demonstrates the cumulative, transfixing power in the repetition of an idea (not just a form), especially over decades. 

Which is not to say that her paintings don’t work on their own. Each is an unformulaic marvel, in one way or another. I did notice, though, while playing a pulse-quickening round of “Which one would I buy?” at the museum, that it’s very hard to choose. A particularly beautiful and balanced one, taken away from its friends, might appear too goody-goody to be representative of the work. A weirder painting might pass as a thrift store find, cast off by its hobbyist creator. (That’s not bad; it’s just part of the point.) And beyond any art-critical quandary, it’s cruel to force oneself to pick between breaking waves and snowy trees, a creepy barn and a bungalow on stilts. One painting is not enough—the more the better—and we’re lucky that in “Clear Day,” there are a lot. 

Johanna Fateman