When we speak of "muscularity" in painting, we are talking not only about something tantamount to "push and pull," the apt term Hans Hoffmann came up with to describe the underlying pictorial tensions that animate an Abstract Expressionist composition, but also about a certain dynamic viscosity in the paint surface itself, which lends physical traction to the implied tension, making it all the more dramatic.
Perhaps the best, and as it turns out, the most literal, example of this quality in recent painting can be seen in "Intersections," a solo show by Lorraine Shemesh, at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street through April 11.
For most of us long familiar with Shemesh's work, this show represents a real departure for an artist best known for her "Water-Works," paintings of swimmers soaring as sleekly as porpoises, their bodies buoyantly afloat or submerged in an aqueous flow lit by luminous reflections. That they were most often of male and female couples added an ecstatic element to the mix, as when two bodies are so perfectly in tune that lovemaking attains its most weightlessly transcendent pitch.
Now the figures are still coupled, but they are landlocked, being dancers rather than swimmers. Their lithe bodies are sheathed in skin-tight black and white striped leotards. Their faces are hidden behind hoods of the same pattern and their limbs and torsos are locked more as though in struggle than in tender embrace, suggesting a different type of sexual union.
The new series of paintings acknowledges the different levels of desire, difficulty, and mechanical neediness that often must be worked through to tilt the tricky pinball machine of the human libido and sustain the sublime state of romantic love beyond initial infatuation.
In her introduction to the exhibition catalog, gallery director Claudia Stone alludes to "a deep sense of personal loss that many of us encounter as we live through the death of those dear and important to us." And indeed a subtle yet haunting sense of mortality is also present in Shemesh's latest series. One perceived it first in the exquisite preliminary drawing for the large oil on canvas called, "Zipper," so named because, here, the dancers merge so closely that the black and white stripes on their bodysuits lock like steel teeth. In Shemesh's swift, elegant sketch in litho crayon on vellum, where the stripes are omitted in the interest of overall fluency, the skeletal aspect of the two figures grinding sinuously up against each other seems to signify more than anatomical expediency in the act of drawing. Rather, these transparent phantoms, entwined like wisps of smoke, suggest how desperately we cling and couple to the end, in denial of our eventual disembodiment.
Just as haunting in another manner is the painting called, "Lock," in which the two figures, crouched like rowers with lowered heads, clutch each others' upper arms near the shoulders, as though commiserating in some shared grief.
In a more general sense, however, Lorraine Shemesh's new paintings seem to be all about the push and pull of relationships and of painting itself. In the latter regard (which always trumps subject matter, no matter how compelling, in a painter of her caliber), the bold black and white stripes, as well as the juicily glistening sumptuousness of Shemesh's oil surfaces, seem kindred to the abstraction of Sean Scully. Shemesh, however, eschews the geometric strictures that Scully imposes, making her stripes twist and undulate expressively with the gestures of her figures. And while these dancers may be more static than her swimmers, the spaces around and between them are evoked with such succulent vigor as to suggest that this virtuoso painter has gone beyond apprehending the flow of water to make magically palpable in pigment the swarming energies that activate the very air we breathe.
McCormack, Ed. "Lorraine Shemesh: The Weight of the Body Poised Against the Dance of Paint."
Gallery & Studio. (April/May 2009): illus. 5.