Contributed by Jacob Patrick Brooks / As you walk into “Honoring the Dog-Legging Horizon” at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, something feels off. The sense is vague at first, but it becomes clearer as you alternate between hunching in close or backing up more than usual. The show is hung low, by about a foot. The press release explains that this is meant to encourage the viewer to make use of the benches, to sit down and digest the work, though my first impression was simply that I was meant to feel like a giant. Still, engineering scrutiny is an interesting idea, and the work is well worth taking in fully.
The work is a rich assortment of abstract paintings made in the last year or so, ranging from the minimalism of Jule Korneffel’s large, densely layered Godzilla to Larry Wolhandler’s Ryman-like experimentalism. Both are excellent examples of restraint. Korneffel’s piece consists of two dots, one green and the other pink, that stand in opposition to each other in a thin sea of blue covering reddish ground. The more you look, the choppier the water feels, exuding a quiet rumbling. By contrast, Wolhandler’s untitled piece presents two adjacent squares, one filled in nicely the other open. The square peg longs for the round hole to its left, the impossibility of which is both frustrating and delightful.
Of particular interest is Jane Swavely’s stripped-down OID 1. It’s remarkable not only because of how much of herself is present in her mark, but also because of how she renders the structure of the stretchers themselves part of the composition. It’s an indication of how much pressure she applied, and how little she cared to hide it. The stretchers visibly split the composition into four equal parts, evoking both a cross and a sooty window. This lightly suggests a tension, long familiar in painting, between the holy and the banal. Contrast this with the painting just to the left by Heather McKenna untitled (light series). It’s another grid, but this one made exclusively with a paintbrush. The image is ethereal, like a diaphanous curtain, conjuring vulnerability and certainly not any Supports/Surfaces-esque dichotomy.
The placement of the work evokes a half-finished building. The bones are exposed, letting us know that there is plenty to keep it standing. Peter Brock and Marjolein Knottenbelt have collage diptychs that call to each other from the corners. Brock’s are grey sumi ink fields on an aluminum panel, the bottom inch-and-a-half or so exposed. It serves as a sort of pseudo-landscape with a looming, darkening sky. Knottenbelt’s 2 Impossible Encounters is a sideways portrait and an empty frame. The portrait is slightly larger, preventing the head from sliding into the frame. Still, the impulse to fill an open space persists. Indeed, the gap separating the two pieces seems to be about the same size as the exposed aluminum in Brock’s piece. From across the gallery floor, an imaginary composition begins to form.
Artists have beaten up painting with varying levels of success and hostility. They ask: what can painting actually do? Variations on material and application have pushed and pulled the form, and this show serves up a strong chorus of answers, defying skeptics. “Honoring the Dog-Legging Horizon” dares to go farther by including the gallery itself as a component of the art. It’s no longer a passive vehicle, but something the viewer will either resist by staying standing or submit to by sitting down. Adding their voices to those of the artists, the curators and gallerists are brave and audacious enough to ask the same questions the painters did: what happens if I do this?
“Honoring the Dog-Legging Horizon,” featuring Carly Burnell, Heather McKenna, Jane Swavely, Jule Korneffel, Larry Wolhandler, Marjolein Knottenbelt, Nora Chellew, and Peter Brock. Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 170-A Suffolk Street, New York, NY. Through August 27, 2021.
About the author: Jacob Patrick Brooks is a Brooklyn painter who grew up in Kansas.