Tony Just, Sweet bitter, 2020, oil, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, 59 × 78 3/4".

Tony Just, Sweet bitter, 2020, oil, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, 59 × 78 3/4".

Tony Just

The physiology of pain is often liquid. In Anne Carson’s 2002 translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, the poet speaks of “my dripping (pain)” as she wishes ill and exile on the man who caused her harm: “May winds and terrors / carry him off.” In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), Hamm laments “something dripping in my head. . . . A heart in my head. . . . Splash, splash, always on the same spot.” Pain spreads and swells, floods the lungs. Pain can overflow.

But if pain is liquid, what of its residue? (Splash, splash, always on the same spot.) Tony Just paints drips and leaks, fugitive marks that eschew governance and direct their own composition. He first tested this method seven years ago, having finished Hans Fallada’s 1950 chronicle of anguish, The Drinker, in which the narrator, Erwin Sommer, suffers an existential crash, succumbs to addiction, and deliberately contracts tuberculosis as a way of ending his life. But through his riotous capitulation to suffering, Sommer happens upon solace. To drink is to drift “deep into the darkness where there is neither failure nor regret”; to weep is “endless, bitter, and eventually comforting.” Release in pain, pain in release.

As if to lengthen the trail of Sommer’s tears or call forth their cathartic potential, Just poured wine over a nearby notebook and painted the absent space that opened between the drops. He has sustained this process of creative immersion ever since, dousing the pages of literary texts with ink and gouache and transferring the soggy little accidents onto larger canvases and bare walls. For his recent exhibition “Our inchoate love,” which comprised twelve newly produced works, such spontaneous blotches were liberated from dog-eared books and reproduced on canvases as tranquil lavender pools, thick clots of black and underlaid burgundy, waterfalls in yellow and luminous pink. In Aphrodite giver of blessings (all works 2020), a tart yellow disk shone like the memory of the sun burned into an eye. Swaths of arylide yellow and gold were painted directly onto the supporting wall: light that could not be tempered, color that would not stop.

Just’s titles pay homage to their literary forebears. Carson’s Sappho speaks through several, from the tarry pools of O for Adonis to the monochrome mist of My darling one. A work titled The witches are here has its origins in drip paintings made in a book of Henri Matisse etchings, but here referentiality is abandoned, with Just’s wayward forms opening themselves to myriad interpretations and configurations. (“Things dissolve and come into focus and then dissolve again,” he says in an interview with the exhibition’s curator, Tenzing Barshee.) The jagged yellow fissures that break the prevailing black of Sweet bitter are at once peals of lightning, a shimmering copse of birches, and the lingering tracks of tears once shed. Just as Fallada’s Sommer found clarity via resignation, so too does Just find form via an act of creative demurral. The parameters are simple, the artist notes: “to have as little thought involved as possible.” This is expressionism without expression, abstraction freed from intent.

“Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography,” writes Carson in a fragment from Glass, Irony and God (1995), which introduces the exhibition. “It has a totally private interior yet its trajectory is public.” So it is too with every movement, mark, and inchoate intensity; every drop of wine spilled and cleaned, gone but not really. While the initial compositions of Just’s bewitching paintings might be consciously distanced from their maker, the works amount to a visual autobiography of bygone gestures told through and preserved by the gentle little marks they left on life: an archive of lived time in yellow and luminous pink.