A Review of Dan Walsh at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
“Philip Guston makes an Agnes Martin,” is a phrase that Dan Walsh has often used in interviews to describe his work. Initially this is a rather weird analogy, thinking of an aesthetic marriage of a politicized figurative painter (following on Guston’s reformation from Abstract-Expressionism) and a transcendent abstract painter, whose work is often confused with Minimalism. You really have to scratch your head about “Guston x Martin,” borrowing the botanical “x” to symbolize the intergradient of two species. But, when you start looking at images and think about Walsh’s work, it gels. Walsh is using a saturated, often ecstatic, color palette (Guston) to make near (and only near)-perfect geometric patterned paintings (Martin). This is a hybridization that works.
Walsh’s current solo exhibition is a show of many things that highlights the breadth of his production. It has paintings, drawings, floor-based sculptures, and wall-hung reliefs. There is even a book, which should not be overlooked. (Walsh has made about 30 books since 1998. He asserts, rightly, that when you are looking at and handling a book, you are engaging a person in a totally different way.) At first the components feel like they are in competition with each other, a visual and physical assault, rather than equals in a cohesive exhibition. But this tension makes sense, since Walsh has said, “I want my works to be a vehicle for thought, for how your eye registers things, how meaning is triggered by the retinal. But more importantly, that the eye meaning can’t be generated without the eyes activity.”
Walsh has not quite disavowed his Guston x Martin “schtick,”as he puts. Now he says his work is “where the retinal meets the symbolic.” He personally likes things that focus the mind—from mandalas to Sudoku puzzles—all things that illuminate an underlying organization. Walsh’s paintings and drawings operate almost as vehicles for concentration and prayer. They are not intentionally spiritual, but they lift you nonetheless, especially when they vibrate on the wall, like the pastel-hued “Debut” and the brazenly colored “Bound.”
Walsh develops very basic systems for his work, like a grammar for an elemental language. He clearly likes patterns and “the obedience to the pattern,” adding “I don't want to trick anybody. But to show the steps is key.” He is even comfortable being called a “decorative color painter as opposed to being some kind of brooding Marxist.” (People sometimes recoil at the term “pattern painting.” Not so much when the work is by Christopher Wool or Sol LeWitt.) This honesty is ironic in an age when so much art is hopelessly devoid of content, let alone politics. With Walsh, as with his predecessors, LeWitt and Mangold both come to mind, you can encounter the work, ease into it, and just enjoy it. It is honest, methodical, and unlabored work, without the buzzy, hyper-caffeinated feel of so much Internet-based or –derived art.
Aside from two works in the gallery’s foyer, which are easy to overlook owing to their placement, the show is in two galleries. It is essential to see both. The smaller gallery has ink drawings, which are almost memories of ideas they are so delicate. The two paintings—one aggressively bold blaring in tangerine; the other almost a steel gray—anchor the room. Among these works are unvarnished, hand-drilled wooden reliefs that have a visual tactility, contradictory though that might seem. You can dispute the installation, which feels crowded, but not the work.
The larger gallery houses five paintings and two sculptures. All of the paintings are titled with single, precise descriptions, like “Constellation” and “Lift.” The titles aptly describe each work, but they are not redundant. On its own, “Constellation” could be spot lit and hold a darkened gallery, like a Rothko-esque chapel. “Lift” is a peacock of a painting, executed in primary colors framed with horizontal white and black stripes. A coiled heavy rope sculpture also doubles as a prop for a painting that is not exhibited. An ultra-fine copper screen structure is a three-dimensional version of a painting that has a structural kindredness with Do Ho Suh, although it is far from being a literal representation.
It takes a while to get comfortable with this exhibition. In fact, it is best to go from small gallery to large gallery and back again, to make both the psychic and physical connections. It is best to let yourself feel this exhibition and not over think it.
Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.
521 W 21st Street from January 5 – February 4, 2017 *Images courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery