Contributed by James J.A. Mercer / There is an undeniable lushness to the paintings and textiles in Annette Hur’s solo show “Watching from the Other Side” at Hesse Flatow in Chelsea. Elegant shapes shine through dappled light and leaves. Oils blur, drip, or dive across the surface at wild angles. But discolorations and deformations suggest that something is unresolved, something is in process. Lines are strained, stretched and full of holes. Clouds of analogous color are cut with dissonant hues or smeared with black. The colors are subtle but sick, atmospheric but poisoned. They have a headache.
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In time recognizable objects appear through layers of camouflage. Dragonflies, wilting flowers, rotting fruit. An eye staring out of weird botanical fire. Ribs, perhaps. If we can accept this imagery, what appeared at first as a flourishing of forms starts to rot. The fruit is gnawed on, pitted. Lizards prey on moths. It becomes unclear what is falling apart, what is hiding, and what is dying. Anxious that visual generosity might be a guise for disgust, I found myself cycling through a range of interpretations. Is this seduction or disease? Are the colors inventive or sadistic? Feelings become elusive.
Though soaked in a grim intensity, these are not the grand, loud nightmares of Francis Bacon or Roberto Matta. Instead, the composition of the works renders many of them understated, quiet. In Our Collective Bodies immense sheets of patchy purple are punctuated by antiseptic greens. There are clearly lizards and a skunk creeping around, but harder to ascertain are what might be perversely large moths, skewered and dripping grey filth.
We enter these paintings in a peculiar way. Objects are vaguely centered, but the edges are often out of view, the contours of figures lie beyond the boundary of the picture. Our inability to grasp where one form ends and another begins implies a wandering eye. It’s as though we happened upon decomposing creatures while walking in the woods, their agony dawning on us slowly. Recognition comes too late, after we’ve already gotten too close.
In The Place of Ours, candy-colored forest critters and black trees set the stage for a geometric children’s play tent. The curtain is pulled back, but where we might expect a discovery at the center, there is nothing, only a spatially ambiguous blur. Time and distance are organized carefully not for the sake of extremes, but specifically to blunt emotional impact. The crux, if it is visible at all, has melted away, merely suggested by fragments.
A poem titled “AS IF” is distributed with the show. Each line is a snapshot of painful mortality, building in intensity despite never coalescing. The poem lays bare bodily extremes, but the repeated phrase “as if” may be more telling about Hur’s approach. To say that it is as if something is happening is to say that its occurrence is still in doubt. “As if” means being suspended halfway, caught in the midst of interpretation.
The assumption that pain is always bad is as commonplace as it is superficial. No one can deny the instinct to avoid hurt, to look away from decay, to hold one’s nose at a stench. But the provocation of Hur’s paintings is that beauty and agony could be mistaken for each other. Is it so surprising that pain and elegance look like siblings? The fascination of Hur’s paintings is grounded in the peculiar ways details relate to the whole. On close examination, the play of shapes and colors becomes more and more vivid, leading us on a trail of abstractions. I’ve known Hur’s work for years. She often paints very close to the canvas, standing right up against the surface, intentionally not seeing the larger image. This must be part of the reason that the sections of each piece feel so enmeshed, how their limbs become so vexingly tangled.
To spend time with these works is to travel into and eventually inhabit all the little corners of their teeming, wounded surfaces. We lose ourselves in the same field of abstractions that Hur succumbs to in the studio. The precision and intensity of these abstractions, even if they are made of pain, is somehow transformative. It is an evocation of hurt so strange, and so vivid, as to be redemptive.
“Annette Hur: Watching from the Other Side,” Hesse Flatow, 508 W. 26th Street, Suite 5G, New York, NY. Through December 18, 2021. Also on view: “Affective Histories,” with S. Erin Batiste, Christina P. Day, Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez, Cate Richards, Julia Rooney, and Kelsey Tynik
About the author: Painter James J.A. Mercer graduated from the Columbia MFA Program in 2021.