Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / “The Subject is The Line” at the Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham, New York, is a handsome, beautifully installed exhibition of the work of fourteen established artists. The show, as curator Donna Moylan writes, “brings together a group of artists who have affinities” because they make “The Line the very protagonist of the work, both what it is about and how it is demonstrated – or demonstrates itself.” Most of the work is understandably abstract, and all but three of the artists make paintings (or at least painting-like objects). Almost all the artists have a presence in the Hudson Valley area, New York City, or both.
Chatham may not be Brooklyn or Chelsea, but artwise, it’s by no means a rustic backwater. Nor is it so rural that it has no culture other than the county fair. The town is bustling with shops selling upscale, tasteful items, and the Shaker Museum, located for years in nearby Old Chatham, will soon move to a building on Chatham’s main street. Home to the late Ellsworth Kelly, Chatham has long welcomed part-time New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers, and the bucolic area is a growing choice for many New York artists wanting a residence outside the city. As Moylan sees it, “Perhaps the ancient intelligence of farmland is especially compatible to art-making, as if the quiet labor, the seasonal rhythm and crop harvesting of farming had a similarity to studio work.” Over the past couple of decades, “outlier” towns like Chatham, Hudson, and North Adams, Massachusetts (with MassMoCA), have become mini-centers of art. They and several other towns in the Northeast – some very small, like Falls Village, Connecticut, which hosts Furnace Art on Paper Archive – now welcome serious art, contributing to the ongoing destabilization of the twentieth-century model whereby New York, LA or Chicago were the only places for serious art.
Although all the artists in this show do use line – some a great deal of it – I found myself wondering whether it is always the major element, or whether any of the art is actually “about” line, especially in a formal sense. De Kooning and Gorky both constantly used line, but is their work about line, or is it about their anxious striving for immediate expression, which line merely suits best?
The best case for the curatorial premise lies in Anne Lindberg’s two large wall pieces, in graphite and colored pencil on mat board. From a distance the works seem to shimmer, but up close one sees a multitude of long, precisely drawn parallel lines that start and end at a small, calculated distance from the edges of the board. They’re reminiscent of the early 1960s line paintings of Robert Irwin, who would spend over a year painting a single horizontal line. In both Irwin’s and Lindberg’s cases, the effect is elegantly simple yet tactile. The most important aspect of this kind of picture, however, is the meditative solace derived from the patience and mindfulness it takes to make such perfect lines.
Ellen Kozak’s two abstract oil-on-panel pieces, each a small horizontal rectangle, are also made with multiple parallel lines. Her work seems only tenuously “about” line. On her website, the artist herself talks about her work in terms of “observations of nighttime passages; barges, tugs and tankers; reflections, illuminations and moonlight on the Hudson River.” In other words, she sees her paintings as coming from painterly meditations on the light and movement she observes on the Hudson River at night.
In Holly Miller’s thin threads, sewn in parallel fashion into her two small acrylic paintings (Block #1, Sway # 4, both from 2021), the fact that there are sewn elements in the paintings overrides any perception that these elements make pictorial lines. Katharine Umsted’s small pink vessels are made of plaster bandages, newspaper, acrylic, and glitter in such a way that the outer surfaces look as if lines envelop them, yet, as with all three-dimensional forms, the physical shape and presence of the objects predominate. As for Gary Stephan’s small painting MIRROR THREE (2021), it could as readily be included in an exhibition emphatically about shape as one about line.
I’m happy enough to refrain from asking what constitutes a line (in geometry, it has only one dimension, length; in art, it’s an entirely different matter). But – and maybe it’s the metaphysician in me – I must observe that an artist’s use of line versus shape is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Artists will always reach for what they need to say what they want to say. That said, none of my qualms about the theme of the show should detract from the overall excellence of what’s in it. Moylan has brought together strong work by a group of excellent artists who make a wide range of art, all of it compelling. That’s quite an accomplishment. If you’re anywhere in the area before the show closes on September 5, it’s definitely worth a visit.
“The Subject is The Line,” curated by Donna Moylan. Artists include Agnes Barley, Laura Battle, Julie Evans, Carter Hodgkin, Ellen Kozak, Anne Lindberg, Susan Mastrangelo, Susan Meyer, Holly Miller, Michael Scott, Mark Sheinkman, Gary Stephan, Katharine Umsted, Tamara Zahaykevich. Thompson Giroux Gallery, 57 Main Street, Chatham, NY. Open Thursday through Monday, 11:00 am – 5:00 pm. Through September 5, 2021.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University. Based in New York City and Lakeville, Connecticut, she is currently working on a new series of abstract paintings.