Sobriety, resilience, and hope at Massey Klein Gallery

Contributed by Riad Miah / Emerging from lockdown, Massey Klein Gallery on the Lower East Side has reopened its doors, if only by appointment, with two new exhibitions featuring three artists. Claire Lieberman and Louis Reith’s works are shown together in “Elemental” while Bethany Czarnecki has a separate exhibition of a new series of paintings called “énouement.”

Installation of Claire Lieberman & Louis Reith: Elemental and enouement, Bethany Czarnecki at Massey Klein Gallery

Bethany Czarnecki’s oil paintings are obliquely reminiscent of early compositions of Gregory Amenoff and Bill Jensen, but more directly reference Georgia O’Keeffe in their figurative allusions and Helen Frankenthaler in their chromatic fluidity. Czarnecki’s shapes and color nestle next to one another, suggesting forms in nature related to landscape or the human body. In form and color, her work also resembles that of her contemporary Loie Hollowell, but it is less rigidly geometric and more intuitively executed. This elegant looseness serves to impart, among other things, dynamic organic interaction and the passage of time: énouement, the notion with which she frames the series, is the inevitable yet wrenching sense of having arrived in the future and lamenting not having seen it earlier. If only I had known. Thus, while resolutely abstract from a strictly visual standpoint, Czarnecki’s work metaphorically zones in on human contact and cognitive limitation. In the evocatively-titled painting Passage, the careful placement of a brightly colored blue pressing out from the center may symbolize the human point of view. More broadly, the painting suggests worldly contact for better or worse, as the tan band at the bottom appears to envelop the brighter yellow strand, and the turquoise, browns, and pinks squeeze the thin strip of yellow. Énouement – the inversion of which involves projecting future wistfulness (or at least wisdom) about the present – is an especially apt theme in hard times. It is perhaps not surprising that Czarnacki has a degree in sociology, which here she integrates so seamlessly into her artwork.

Bethany Czarnecki, Passage, 2020, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches
Bethany Czarnecki, installation view

The work of Claire Lieberman and Louis Reith contrasts considerably with Czarnecki’s. Reith’s finely-honed sculptural paintings consist of wood constructions of irregular shapes, stained with soil. There is a pronounced interplay between the negative and positive form, as the organic earth (and sometimes the gallery wall) contrasts with the gain of the wood, and the irregularities of the hard-edge shapes pristinely isolate and amplify the infinite variability of that simple binary relationship. Just as compelling are the smaller collages incorporating similar motifs but employing ink and sun-bleached book pages as part of the palette. The overall pattern suggests the influence of Danish Modern Design and the De Stijl art movement originating in the Netherlands, and more remotely brings to mind some of Gabriel Orozco’s two-dimensional works. Complementing Reith’s pieces are small, black marble sculptures, meticulously carved and similarly refined, by Claire Lieberman. Although her forms seem superficially like interpretive three-dimensional reifications of Reith’s patterns in positive space, she unambiguously accords them playfully biological forms (e.g., Warhol’s flower) as well as decisive objecthood. The artists might respectively embody solemn theory and more improvisational practice, equally well-wrought.

Louis Reith, Untitled_1, 2020, collage and ink on found book pages, Diptych 8.2 x 5.9 inches each, framed 11.2 x 15.2 inches
Claire Lieberman, Fluffy, 2020, black marble, 10.5 H x 7 inches diameter

Walking through the long and narrow space of Massey Klein Gallery, you start with the austerely dichromatic work of Reith, anchored pragmatically in a somber present, take a leavening dose of Lieberman’s jaunty if also dark statues, and finish with Czarnecki’s brightly colored paintings, which reach forward with hedged optimism. That seems about the right blend of sobriety, resilience, and hope for this moment.

“Claire Lieberman & Louis Reith: Elemental” and “Bethany Czarnecki: enouement,” Massey Klein Gallery, 124 Forsyth Street, New York, NY 10002, through August 1.

About the Author: Artist and educator Riad Miah was born in Trinidad and Tobago and now lives and works in New York City. He has exhibited with Lesley Heller Workspace, Rooster Gallery, and Sperone Westwater Gallery, among others.

Related posts:
Gregory Amenoff: Inside and Out
Exhibitions: Heilmann, Marden, Riley, Hollowell, and last chance for Krebber
New geometries: Embracing narrative and content

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