New York

Anna Conway, Storm Preparations, 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 90".

Anna Conway, Storm Preparations, 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 90".

Anna Conway

Fergus McCaffrey

Anna Conway, Storm Preparations, 2017, oil on canvas, 48 x 90".

With their brooding tones, stark settings, and elusive narratives, Anna Conway’s paintings are the visual equivalents of spy novels. Like the best works in the genre (books by John le Carré, for example), Conway’s oils on canvas are marked by the abundance and clarity of their details—and by the thrill of trying to decipher which details are significant and which are merely mundane. Every object—from river-rock-paneled trash can to Castiglioni Arco lamp to safety-orange extension cord—is rendered with such precision that it can be difficult to figure out where the meaning resides. Does the specificity of modernist furniture in Perseverance, 2015, with its anodyne scent of good taste, trump the overall feeling of empty foreboding? The bland interiors in Conway paintings are paralleled by that of the gallery space where her artworks hang—but is that a coincidence or a critique? As when reading a spy thriller, one’s senses are heightened, and the experience can tip easily from pleasurable to paranoid, with the nagging sense that one may have missed something critical, no matter how thorough one’s attention. The paintings’ intense clarity encourages not just examination but identification. Looking at Rhino, 2017, for example, I found myself obsessing over the inspiration for the rearing rhinoceros. Conway’s figure was clearly an amalgam of the bronze rhino and elephant in front of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but I was unwilling to accept that there wasn’t something more specific behind the figure that would lead me to better understand the painting overall, or at least that would better explain the uncanny sense of recognition I felt before it.

An air of surrealist suspension has characterized Conway’s hyperrealist paintings for well over a decade, and it continued to do so at Fergus McCaffrey. Her largest presentation to date, Conway’s exhibition brought together four stunning paintings from 2017 with four works made in 2015 for the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The fundamentals were the same, but it was tempting to read in the new works a slight shift in tone, a darkness more pervasive than before. Her earlier compositions formed a set by virtue of their aspirational titles (Devotion, Determination, Perseverance, Potential), but the new paintings seemed slightly ill at ease with lofty motivations. Instead, they named the obvious, be it the main figure (Rhino, Haniwa), the location (Desert), or the situation (Storm Preparations). With these titles, Conway has downgraded the options of the Everyman figure who often populates her images. The industrial farmhand in Devotion, 2015, naps on a cot beneath a motivational poster with a stock photo of trees and a single word, RESOLVE. A concrete wall separates him from his herd of thousands of ear-tagged cattle, as the blank billboards that loom over the farm call out for his anxieties and hopes. In Storm Preparations, 2017, by contrast, a sheet has been draped over what might be a pile of building materials and weighted with sandbags, a practical gesture that nonetheless lends a slightly sinister recoding to Man Ray’s photograph The Enigma of Isador Ducasse, 1920. In Conway’s most recent paintings there are fewer spaces for dreamlike projection and flights of fancy. Instead, the artist seems to have harnessed the ominous, paranoia-inducing moment—recognizable to le Carré readers, but also, more generally, to our current political situation—when the barrage of details makes it impossible to determine one’s position in the world. Or, perhaps, it is merely Conway’s newest method of letting us project our own anxieties onto her screens.

Rachel Churner