December 24, 2008

Jed Perl on Art

Private Lives

   . . .I am excited by any artist who insists that a private vision is also a large vision, suggesting that marginality can have its own kind of monumentality. This is surely also the case with the paintings of Mari Lyons, who, in a series of exhibitions at the First Street Gallery over the past few years, has staked her claim as the complete painter, the master of every genre: still life, interior, portrait, figure, landscape, and cityscape. In September, she exhibited views of upstate New York. I think Lyons wanted us to come to these new paintings with memories of her intricately comedic studies of the parade of people and cars and buses on New York's Upper West Side and of her strikingly eccentric studio interiors, where a carousel horse and a spinning wheel and an African bird and a vase of flowers overlap like rival voices in a late-night conversation. With these new landscapes, Lyons urges us to embrace another side of her personality: a certain quietism, a desire to sit still and contemplate the solidity of a solitary tree or the pinkish light on a hill dense with foliage. Painting the landscape, Lyons holds fast to the urgency that registers in the intensity of her brushwork, in the ripe, confident attack, the unabashed color. Some small landscapes, with areas of color laid in with thick strokes, have a buttery seduction. This show was, more than anything else, about color becoming light.

The idea of the complete painter, the painter who is master of all genres, is an old one, and in modern times it registers as a particular assertion of personal possibility. A few weeks after Lyons's show closed, I saw the overview of works by Louisa Matthiasdottir at Tibor de Nagy. Matthiasdottir, who died in 2000, was born in Iceland and lived most of her life in New York, where she brought a classical modern feeling for the solidity of abstract form to her ringingly succinct evocations of naturalistic space. Like Lyons, Matthiasdottir had no interest in specializing in one type of subject. She moved from still life to the figure to the landscape and back, developing as she went a sense of personal amplitude. It is risky for an artist to attempt to
recapitulate so many of the traditional Western pictorial genres, and I do not think it is incidental that both these artists are women, although I would not press the matter of gender too far. Their eagerness to paint it all—city and country, still life and landscape, themselves and their friends—redresses an imbalance. Matthiasdottir and Lyons want to engage with the pictorial structures through which such subjects have been shaped by mostly male artists in the past, so that feminism is rapidly subsumed in formalism, and the large public problem in the particular personal one.