"Anne Neely: Dwelling on Painting" by John A. Tyson

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Anne Neely: Hidden in Plain Sight, curated by Sarah Sze, on view at CUE Art Foundation, November 2 - December 16, 2017. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.

                                              The Scream, 2017. Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches.

                                              The Scream, 2017. Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches.

Anne Neely’s art provides ways of exploring ideas and transmitting knowledge. Her prior series have treated mortality (in Leaving: A Meditation on Death, 1998) and the effects of pollution on the world around us (in “Water Stories,” 2014). Although meaning is present in her most recent series, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” it is not totally fixed; this body of paintings does not deal quite so explicitly with worldly issues. Rather, these serial works, primarily realized on fourteen-by-eleven-inch canvases, engage with the matter of painting: Neely references her own process, rhymes painterly passages, and plumbs the history of the medium. She avoids any single style and instead channels the spirits of other painters, from Les Nabis to Philip Guston. Moreover, “Hidden in Plain Sight” transmits Neely’s delight in acts of composition. She clearly relishes daubing, dissolving, spraying, squishing, pressing, scraping, spreading, scumbling, and combing the pigment on canvas. Her vast imagination about possible techniques surely owes something to her explorations of printmaking as well as to more than forty years of experience with her primary medium. The artist has suggested that dwelling in a specific place is important in order for her to capture some of the site’s essence. A new inflection informs her methodology here; now, she dwells on painting. 

For much of the last three decades, Neely has created paintings that refer directly or indirectly to the landscape. Many of her works in this vein represent oscillating views, which push and pull the beholder between aerial and subterranean vistas. Despite multiple perspectives, they are without fail oriented horizontally—in the typical fashion of landscape paintings. While the new paintings are mostly vertical compositions, they bear the imprint of Neely’s past production. For example, The Scream (2017) suggests an overhead view with cartographic trails and diluvial traces in white on pine, which recall the poured paint flows of Neely’s “Water Stories.” Building Landscape (2017) has transfer-printed paint in the lower edge that could depict mountains or trees. However, despite her title, Neely thwarts an easy reading of a panorama by emphasizing the flatness of the support, superimposing a spray-painted ovoid and brushy navy chevron on the surface. Similarly, A Simple Painting (2017), with its bush (resembling an extraterrestrial life form) in the center of a decorative yellow-ochre ground, presents a vision of nature isolated from picturesqueness. 

Just as traces of past practice are visible in recent work, so too can we find in older projects markers signaling the trails Neely would blaze in her current paintings. The aptly entitled Surprise (2009) strongly anticipates her shift to painting about painting. Its giant dragged curve in grape-soda purple, punctuated by blue and black rhizomatic crackles, breaks through the tree-frog-green and Meyer lemon-yellow striations glimmering across her canvas. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is replete with these kinds of juxtapositions of color and texture. Canvases like the multihued Blackbird Fly (2017)—in which a similar purple smear is juxtaposed against a black slashing, calligraphic figure on a light green ground—and After Howard Hodgkin (2017) both hum and wail. In Odalisque and Ghost (both 2017) she achieves dazzling compositions by speaking in the voices of Pierre Bonnard and Gustav Klimt, respectively. Becoming a medium herself, Neely draws upon the wealth of painting knowledge she has accrued over a lifetime as a voracious consumer of art books and a seasoned traveler to museums the world over. In what is only an apparent paradox, she paints in such a fresh manner because of her wisdom.

Neely began “Hidden in Plain Sight” after contemplating a grouping of wooden paint stirrers on a palette in her studio. She was drawn to the arrangement and felt compelled to render it in paint, realizing chance had gifted her a compelling composition. Canvases like Cypher and Hidden in Plain Sight (both 2017) contain groupings of stirrer-like forms that closely resemble what she had seen. The two titles provide clues about the importance of these paintings for unlocking her others. Evoking Ellsworth Kelly (who often made seemingly abstract paintings referring to concrete forms), Neely transformed the stirring sticks into planes of bold color. But her sense of humor and irreverence distinguish her painting from the drier work of the late painter from Spencertown. Instead, she also takes a page out of the book of Jasper Johns, who often mined his prior oeuvre for new production. Again and again he reprised a Savarin coffee can filled with brushes, a motif pulled from the headwaters of his artistic process.

There is also a ludic and mischievous side to Neely’s output that parallels Johns’s. For, in addition to referencing objects from her studio environment, she animates the paint stick forms by giving them beady eyes and, in some cases, gaping mouths and limbs. Indeed, yet another figure haunts her operations: the painter Philip Guston. While still working in his abstract expressionist mode, he described the space in which he painted as “the narrow passage from a diagramming to that other state—a corporeality.”[i] It is in this gap between the graphic and the bodily that Neely maneuvers, too. Her The Scream (2017), an amusing reprisal of Edvard Munch’s homunculus, is particularly successful in this sense. Such whimsical figures abound in Neely’s work, although they are sometimes hard to spot.

Neely hopes audiences will commence “just looking” at her painted surfaces. In a painting with this title (as well as in others), an off-kilter network of expressive interweaving brushstrokes covers the entire canvas. The white sieve structure gives the spectator the feeling she is peering through a net or basket, though precisely what vista lies below in Just Looking’s (2017) partially obscured black and blue under layer is unclear.[ii] Flat frontal planes and grid patterns emphasize materiality. Additionally, the canvases’ vertical “portrait” orientation and absence of horizon lines deny association to landscape. Neely’s rapturous marks and vivid fields of color produce visual pleasure: spectators savor regarding the paint.

Nonetheless, in some canvases, she craftily incorporates depth by superimposed layerings and multiply coded shapes. In Memory (2017) and Cypher, forms that initially read as planar faces—each with a geometric mouth, single dot eye, and hair affixed with barrettes—can equally become proscenium stages with elaborate curtains. About Water and Fodder (both 2017) are all-overs, respectively in blue and brown, with wavering woven grids, which the painter achieved by scratching down to the grain of the canvas with needle-like tacks. While optically stimulating, they are resolutely non-figurative—and do not host small beings. Both paintings recall textiles, especially plaid tablecloths or tea towels, which are typically coded feminine and domestic. The grid structures many fabric designs; it is also one of the ur-motifs of modernist abstraction (as the critic Rosalind Krauss explored in the late 1970s).[iii]

Thus, it might be said that many of Neely’s canvases are feminist and feminine reimaginings of the grid. A matrix—a word referring to regular organizational structures, a rocky mass in which jewels and stones are embedded, and etymologically comes from the Latin word for womb—undergirds nearly all of the works in “Hidden in Plain Sight.” These possible meanings most clearly crystalize in The Flower and the Jewel (2017). This painting is built up of jagged touches, in a pink and peach, Guston-esque palette, which radiate from a divisionist light pink and purple core—just slightly decentered. A spattering of darker marks appears on the outer edge. The painter Georg Baselitz once remarked that Guston’s paintings were “not that abstract,” but a “distortion of the abstract, full of concrete forms.”[iv] His words ring true for Neely, who also does not trade in pure abstraction. Although The Flower and the Jewel might depict the titular subjects, the canvas seems to perform a celebration of (or confrontation with) female genitalia. It reworks The Origin of the World (Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting of the same subject) for the contemporary moment, reclaiming the subject.[v] Equally topical are Man (2017), a grotesque black, purple, and blond head, and Fence (2017), a meandering ink weave over a bubblegum pink ovoid, which conjures up the “pussy hats” of the January 2017 women’s marches.

Ultimately, aligning with Neely’s wider oeuvre, “Hidden in Plain Sight” may be seen to catalyze new comprehension. She reminds us that not all important information comes in the form of weighty prose; jokes, as Sigmund Freud famously taught, can affect (and reflect) the contents of the subconscious. So too might the searching contemplation of lighter paintings impact our imaginations and understandings. Neely’s artist’s statement mentions that, like so many of us, she shifts through various identities. With “Hidden in Plain Sight” she travels through them artistically, inviting spectators along. Ideas, old and new, dwell in Neely’s paintings; dwelling on them brings those ideas to life.

[i] Philip Guston, “Statement in Twelve Americans” (1956) in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, Documents of Twentieth-Cenutry Art, ed. Clark Coolidge (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 10.

[ii] The painting began with a landscape, according to the artist.

[iii] See Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (summer 1979): 50-64.

[iv] Georg Baselitz in conversation with Michael Auping, March 18, 1999, cited in Auping, “Impure Thoughts: On Guston’s Abstraction,” in Philip Guston Retrospective, exh. cat (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and Thames & Hudson, 2003), 45.

[v] Courbet’s perspective is clearly detached from (and other to) the body he depicts, while Neely proposes more ambiguous ownership with the tight crop of her vaginal scene.

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This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. 

John A. Tyson is an assistant professor at UMass Boston. From 2015-2017 he was the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in the Departments of Modern and American Prints and Drawings and British and American Paintings at the National Gallery of Art. There he curated Matthias Mansen: ConfigurationsParallel Practices: Artists and the Moving Image, and New Waves: Transatlantic Bonds between Film and Art in the 1960s. Tyson’s writing has appeared in Art in PrintWord & Image, and the International Review of African American Art, as well as in other journals, catalogues, and online platforms.

Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America; other publications to which she has contributed include ArtforumParkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Her book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) was published in June 2015. She is also the author of Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and her essays have appeared in monographs on Shirin Neshat, Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold and Alfredo Jaar, among many others. She is a co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, fall 2013). Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University, RISD, Montclair State University and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.