Crackling With Electricity

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High Desert, 2018, Oil on linen, 60 x 72 inches. Photo: Judith Linhares and P•P•O•W, NYC.

Judith Linhares' exhibition, Hearts on Fire, at PPOW Gallery (February 14-March 16, 2019), features paintings of nude women coexisting in idyllic nature where they may encounter lions, and tigers, even trolls, but that's all perfectly fine because in these enchanted environs, a magic spell seems to have been cast over all involved.

Linhares is an artist who grew up in the California art scene of the '60s and '70s, and in particular the San Francisco scene of David Park and Joan Brown, from whom she may have drawn inspiration in terms of direct, physical painting. She first established herself in New York when she was included in Marcia Tucker's seminal Bad Painting show at the New Museum in 1978. And while she has lived in NYC for the last 40 years, her work is still infused with Californian light and terrain. The first thing one notices upon entering PPOW is that her paintings have the effect of being lit from within -- the result of high-key, sometimes contrasting, colors placed side-by-side. As with the recent Harriet Korman exhibition at Thomas Erben Gallery, the cumulative effect of this is as if the air of the gallery is crackling with electricity.

In "High Desert" (2018), a neon magenta nude reclines on a bright, multicolored afghan set on a rocky outcropping while a handsomely coiffed lion stands but a few feet away. Behind them, a sky majestically lit with soft yellows, salmon orange, and crimson -- each band of light a separate, long brushstroke of color. The woman, whose expression is one of rapture at the sight of the heavenly fireworks, seems blissfully unaware of the lion's presence. While there is palpable tension and mystery between the unsuspecting woman and the powerful lion, perhaps it doesn't matter. Because, as with Linhares' forebear in this case -- Henri Rousseau and "The Sleeping Gypsy" (1897), the lion seems not to harbor malicious intent, and together they express a unity with nature. This unity is made evident by formal considerations like the relationship between how the woman's long blond hair curls up at the end just like the lion's tail. Together, along with her curling toes, they form a neat compositional triangle. (It's important to note, however, one distinction with Rousseau is that while his woman is passively asleep, Linhares' protagonist is actively engaged viewing the sky.)

While the gallery press release claims Hearts on Fire refers to a type of diamond, the show's title might just as easily (and perhaps more straightforwardly) be read as a comment on desire. The female protagonists in Linhares' paintings happily go about their lives pursuing sensual pleasure -- gazing at the sky, relaxing on the beach, warming their feet by the fire, drinking, and devouring drumsticks. Their pleasure might involve men, as in "Beach," but it isn't dependent on men.  These are women with appetites. Take, for example, the spread-legged female in "Revel." Here, we encounter a nude who is lost in the reverie of listening for chirping birds and wood sprites while consuming copious amounts of booze, ensconced in her own merry world.  While the figure's pose is not overtly sexual, there is the matter of the most lurid-looking tree hollow just to her right. Desire is also expressed explicitly in the exaggerated hanging tongues of the cartoony wolves in "Thirst," and "Rave," and perhaps more subtly in their phallic snouts.

What separates Linhares from many other figurative painters working today is her commitment to finding the image through the process of painting, as opposed to having an image in mind in advance and simply executing it.  It is also in her uncompromising fealty to the formal elements of painting: drawing, color, and composition. There is a precision and clarity to her color choices and drawing that gives her work its strong, expressive power. "Tiger" is a great example of Linhares' masterful command.  Constructed stroke by broad stroke, the orange cat's black stripes seem to radiate outward to reflect the rocky terrain and blocky blue ground from which it emerges. Figure and ground are locked together forcing one's eye, as a viewer, to slow down and move carefully around the canvas, back and forth in space.

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Fever, 2018, oil on linen, 23 x 30 inches. Photo: Judith Linhares and P•P•O•W, NYC.

Linhares' tough-minded work carries forward the highest ideals of painting but does so in a felicitous, light-hearted spirit. She's willing to do the hard work that painting requires, to "carry the water," so to speak, as one of her characters literally does in "Saturday Morning" (2017). She has built a vocabulary of forms over the years, a way of treating the figure, of making a mark, a specific color palette, and a consistent subject matter -- in other words, a set of conditions that form her language and together with her accrued wisdom, give her freedom to roam. Linhares embraces traditional subject matter such as the floral still life and the nude because she knows she can transform them and make them her own. Just as the blissed-out figure in "High Desert" marvels at the multicolored sky, I marvel at the myriad grays that make up the rocky outcropping she's lying on. Purple grays, yellow grays, light blue grays -- colors so specific they deserve their own names, but what are those names? You can only experience them. And the experience is to luxuriate in the pleasure of Linhares' conjured scene. One of my favorite subjects in art is the depiction of the act of gazing. Think: a Matisse young woman staring into a goldfish bowl -- we experience both the beauty of the painting while simultaneously becoming self-consciously aware that what we are in the act of doing is the very subject of the painting: gazing beauty. Similarly in "High Desert," we gaze upon the beautiful scene (the painting itself) of another viewer (the nude) gazing at her own beautiful scene. And by the way, the composition of the painting is as solid as the granite the figure is lying on!

These paintings take time but one never senses the effort. I once heard Alex Katz say that if someone spent 2 minutes in front of one of his paintings, he'd consider it a successful painting. By those standards, Judith Linhares' painting fantasia of a peaceable kingdom where woman and beast live in harmony "in the wild" is wildly successful.

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