New York

Nancy Brett, Funnies with Twill, 2019, newspaper, linen, 9 × 7".

Nancy Brett, Funnies with Twill, 2019, newspaper, linen, 9 × 7".

Nancy Brett

Parasol Projects

When I first saw Nancy Brett’s work, around 1990, she was making landscape paintings. I couldn’t quite tell how much direct observation might have gone into them, but they seemed rooted in reality despite their subtle otherworldly mood. Within a few years, her art had changed radically: She was making figure paintings, steeped in images of childhood, and blending memory and metaphor without any pretense of realism. Brett’s last solo show was in 2008. Her reemergence in “Over and Under :: Painting and Weaving,” organized by her fellow artist McArthur Binion along with Anna Stothart, chief curatorial director at New York’s Lehmann Maupin, evidenced another unexpected shift: a fairly recent return, as the subtitle suggested, to a technique Brett hasn’t employed since her student days. She also abandoned representation in favor of painterly abstraction.

I hasten to add that the term painterly describes Brett’s small woven works (the largest is fifteen by eighteen inches, but most are less than a foot square) just as much as it does her more substantial compositions in mostly Flashe paint or ink on canvas or wood, though she also uses gouache, oil, and pencil. While some of her weavings incorporate linen or silk, they are primarily made of paper—sometimes specified on the checklist as “paper leader tape” or “newspaper.” You can make out bits of colorful comics threaded through the top portion of Funnies with Twill, 2019, and parts of Study, 2018. Here, the interaction of warp and weft produces a grid, one that does not imply a perfectly two-dimensional plane—like that of, say, graph paper—but depends on allowing just enough space for things to overlap, for them to cover and reveal each other in turn.

Brett uses paint in the same way she uses paper and fabric in her weavings. But paint allows her to employ translucency, not just opacity, in order to disclose and occlude. The recent paintings frequently deploy arrays of squarish or roughly rectangular forms in loose grids, though Alphabet, 2019, switches these out for scribbly glyphic marks. The most impressive of the canvases on view was Under and Over, 2020, which features sixteen near squares of varying size—in grays and dull greens in a surround that’s mostly as low-key in color—with shades of beige and lighter gray and just the occasional flash of red or blue. The forms emerge and recede in a gentle bobbing rhythm. Heavy outlining does not entirely separate these lively units from their environs, however; it’s as though the outlines are meant to define inherently nebulous areas. But the implicit planes of the painting’s shallow space elude capture, seeming to move under and over each other in an intricate weave and to contract and expand, as one’s lungs do when one is breathing.

In retrospect, that sense of inhalation and exhalation has been a recurrent signature of Brett’s otherwise highly mutable pictorial aesthetic. Thinking back to her landscapes of thirty years ago, I recall that a similar frontality, with no trace of linear perspective, allowed the atmosphere around a stand of trees in several close rows to flatten out and open up. The variegated greens of the trees crowns seemed to jostle forward and backward in turn, the spatial fabric conjuring, in an image of things motionless, a constant inner vibration.