Materia Prima 

Working wonders in paint.

A really delicious book, What Painting Is by James Elkins, parallels the methods and materials of painting with that of alchemy. It is a theme that is not adopted for the sake of mere poetry but as a vehicle to best articulate the inexact science of thinking through substances, the aim of both the artist and alchemist. The mixing of pigment and medium by the artist is likened to the alchemist's concoctions from water and stone, and Elkins ventures into alchemy as a counter to the inadequacy with which art scholarship has treated the subject: "Painting is an unspoken and largely uncognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artist responds in moods. All those meanings are intact in the paintings that hang in museums: they preserve the memory of the tired bodies that made them, the quick jabs, the exhausted truces, the careful nourishing gestures. Painters can sense those motions in the paint even before they notice what the paintings are about. Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought. That is an essential fact that art history misses ."

This little text came to mind while I was looking at the new work by Adam Shaw at Jay Etkin Gallery and Corey Crowder at Perry Nicole Fine Art. While the two are very different painters stylistically, both embody a certain kind of ascetic discipline, growth that is only attained by getting one's hands dirty in the studio. This single-minded determination is palpable, for example, in Shaw's chancing an impetuous slash of fleshy pigment in Summer Evening 2834, challenging his disposition toward precise and reasoned brushwork. For Crowder, pushing the envelope means painting on a heavy slab of concrete, as in Dramatic Symbols for Compound 3. They don't teach you that in art school.

Crowder's unusual choice of media is delightfully nasty, the surface tortured with pits, cracks, and crags and shards of Plexiglas painted in earthy grays, mustard, and grimy asphaltum. It's this junkyard approach that makes Last Resting Place of Simon the Moth so enticing. Consisting of an old chunk of peeling and scorched wood combined with a moth theme and an insect carcass under amber glass, the work ventures into territory generally too close to angst for my taste, but I'll make an exception here. The tactile appeal of Crowder's surfaces is that they reflect the struggle with material substances and the rigors of process that define the act of painting.

While Shaw's figurative paintings may be more traditional, they have no less benefited from the solitude of the studio. The artist is among the most technically gifted figurative painters in the region, combining a confident command of proportion and graceful contour of line with an equally sure alla prima painting style. A late development is the breaking down of form into facets, allowing Shaw to loosen up somewhat while maintaining the structural integrity of the compositions. The sweeps and chiseled brushwork of Sleepers exploit this device to good effect, depicting a late-night sprawl after an evening of partying.

The fragmentation pulls the pictures away from the realm of mere illustration, a possible pitfall of Shaw's refined academic style and penchant for narrative. The charcoal drawings retain more traces of these elements than the paintings, depicting the antiseptic subject of posed nudes bathed in artificial light. While they strike one as art school-ish, the strongly cast shadow down the length of the reclining Nude Study #1, defining a drawn face and muscular physique, takes what would be a mundane scene from drawing class and transforms the figure into an ominous Frankenstein.

Shaw's technical prowess is undeniable, both in drawing and in the use of color, but perhaps his maturity as an artist is best revealed in his willingness to let the finesse go and to plunge into the uncharted territory of the aforementioned Summer Evening 2834. Whereas even at his loosest Shaw has always calculated the angle and swipe of every perfect stroke, the distortion of figures in a swimming pool is handled with a frolicsome squiggle, a mishmash of juicy peach and brown intermingling on a turquoise ground. Discovery in art comes through risk-taking in the studio not by repeating old victories, and this realization above all is Shaw's ace in the hole. I cannot wait to see the next development.

While finishing up this column, a young painter phoned to express his distress at having discovered that painting is in fact dead. After informing him that he is over 100 years late in getting the news, I asked if the revelation would have any bearing on whether or not he would continue to paint. It is Elkins' contention that while art historians and critics may have relegated painting a diminished status in the art world, such news will fall on deaf ears among those possessed by its infinite mysteries.


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