A Landslide and Cocktail Party

The New York Sun
March 20, 2008

by Stephen Maine

Referential, allusive, vernacular, discrepant: These terms and others have been used to modify "abstraction" when applied to nonfigurative painting derived from the shared visual language of our perceptible world. Such an approach is not new; little in contemporary abstraction is. Current shows by two painters in their early 30s, Rosy Keyser and Matt Connors, attest that the idea continues to thrive. Though their results differ dramatically, these artists transcend the abstractionist's allegedly solipsistic celebration of ego not by focusing on the formal dynamics of the painted surface itself but by harnessing the means of abstract painting to address the world outside their studio walls.

In her New York solo debut at Peter Blum Chelsea, Ms. Keyser shows nine large, roiling canvases with distinctly Process-art underpinnings. Her surfaces are downright geological in their tactility, and she prudently curtails her palette, allowing a range of blacks to dominate. The choreographed concretion of gesture that is "Monterey" hinges on a thin, dingy ground across which great splashes of shiny black enamel are arranged.

Raspy bundles of brushstrokes flank an awkward flare of white. "Rugburn, Whiskey Back" resembles the floor of a poorly maintained machine shop. It is a swirling morass of that glassy black, augmented by sawdust and obsidian, a by-product of volcanic activity that here resembles fine gravel, which the artist tosses in by the handful.

Sawdust reappears, carefully stenciled, in "Folk Conjugation." Reinforced by silver spray paint, it forms a scrawny latticework against background hieroglyphics that just barely suggest a shadowy forest. But a cluster of dots at the bottom left alludes to nothing in nature, and thwarts an easy landscape reading.

In fact, none of the paintings offers solid ground, especially not the deliciously ominous "New Madrid," in which a glowering, slate-blue enamel is rubbed into a blistered and blackened canvas that is misaligned with its stretchers. The sense of incipient destruction does not depend on knowledge that the painting is named after the enormous New Madrid Earthquake of 1812, reportedly felt across a million square miles.

As prone to bombast as the canvases are, the dozen smallish works on paper in the gallery's front room have a notational or diaristic quality. In addition to the relatively conventional ink, charcoal, and collaged magazine clippings, Ms. Keyser uses snippets of silk, sheets of transparent mica, tin cans, broken glass, and burn marks to suggest the fragility of the individual in the face of the force of nature. The artist has a strong command of scale, and the urgent whisper of these compact works is every bit as compelling as the big paintings' full-throated holler.

If Ms. Keyser's show is a landslide, Mr. Connors's outing at Canada is something like a cocktail party....