Los Angeles

Vanessa Maltese, Rigmarole, 2018, oil on panel in powder-coated steel frame with magnets, 52 × 41".

Vanessa Maltese, Rigmarole, 2018, oil on panel in powder-coated steel frame with magnets, 52 × 41".

Vanessa Maltese

For a 2016 show at Cooper Cole in her native Toronto, Vanessa Maltese referenced the story of Zeuxis, painter of grapes so luscious that birds were wont to peck at them. At Night Gallery, for her first solo show in Los Angeles, she continued the theme with Duped by the grapes (all works 2018), a wryly fragmented scene that exuberantly plays up the fruit’s fictive status. As in the other six flatly graphic geometric oil paintings on view that evoked the bright, interlocking compositions of Memphis design, she employed trompe l’oeil drop shadows and visual cues for recession (space in her work is mostly hypothetical, though she does score the paint such that the wooden support shows through in each piece). In Rigmarole, she painted accordion-like bands stretched from edge to edge, implying tension that could snap out of the container altogether. And, indeed, edges serve an important role in Maltese’s works, not only as frames for the representational fields but also as manipulable physical borders. Maltese had here rimmed each panel with a powder-coated steel frame decorated with magnetic, acrylic-coated wooden shapes (short lines, half spheres, jaunty arcs) that cast real shadows and could be redistributed to affect the overall composition. To my eyes, the magnets looked greaseless—hypothetically more than actually fondled. In either case, that they could be repositioned mattered, especially as the whole show exerted a force that worked from the outside in, bracketing the painted surfaces with the potentiality of activation.

Maltese extended ever more explicit opportunities for handling in the reimagined Surrealist parlor games—bright-white steel-coated enamel plates with lengths of black chain affixed to their surfaces in the shapes of recognizable things or scenes—that she set out on a long table bisecting the room. Each was titled with a variation of The reader is only satisfied if they feel like a fool, and each comprised something like a cartoon for the viewer to complete. By adjusting one segment of the whole, one might have reconfigured the contours of a face in profile, achieved a given architectonic (if abstract) meeting of two planes in a corner, or moved the untethered hands of a timeless clock. In this way, the pictures were iteratively realized; they remained in medias res. Yet because only a single chain on each panel was loose and actionable, the possibilities for deviation from the ideal were limited. These were gestalts to complete more than forms to conjure.

Under the table, Maltese left Nadia (company), a continuation of her series “company,” 2015–. This impossibly real pair of fake (cast and painted) periwinkle slipper-shoes seemed to invite a wearer and portend a fairy-tale agency. Positioned as if left behind, the shoes gamely redoubled a sense of absence, becoming a trace of both the artist and those who had come to play with her work since she first left it there. While unmonitored, these pieces remained highly structured, subject to the given parameters. Thus did I come to understand that the paintings actually offered a different model of engagement that may well be less—or at least differently—constrained. In the exemplary Remote associations, the painted image was organized into a matrix of folded sheets with patterns that mimicked Rorschach tests. When Hermann Rorschach originally published ten amorphous images in 1921, they were intended to form the basis for a projective test of personality and emotional regulation. In Maltese’s adaptation, they allegorize her prescribed encounters as those between analyst and client, where the viewer is always already invested in what she sees, because it is herself.

Suzanne Hudson