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The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
ArtSeen

Purvis Young and Édouard Vuillard: Prophets and Angels

Left: Édouard Vuillard, <em>Woman in Profile</em>, c.1890. Pastel on Paper, 9 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. Right: Purvis Young, Untitled, c.1990. Acrylic on Wood, 59 x 48 inches. Courtesy Shin Gallery, New York.
Left: Édouard Vuillard, Woman in Profile, c.1890. Pastel on Paper, 9 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. Right: Purvis Young, Untitled, c.1990. Acrylic on Wood, 59 x 48 inches. Courtesy Shin Gallery, New York.

On View
Shin Gallery
Purvis Young and Édouard Vuillard: Prophets and Angels
February 20 – March 29, 2020
New York

In considering this unlikely pairing of painters, it would be easy to seize upon a number of apparent similarities in their work. We could focus first on the cut edge of Vuillard’s small pastel and the jagged space created between the paper’s border and the frame’s mat, noting its formal similarity to the uneven edges of Purvis Young’s paintings on scrap wood and, going further, to the negative space present in their current installation. We could also compare Vuillard’s decorative panels and theater work with Young’s mural-like installations in Overtown, Miami, occupying opposite temporal poles of modernism’s relationship with flatness. This would certainly assuage the initial confusion of the installation, but it would be a superficial remedy, substituting context for content, and ignoring the work itself. Standing between the pictures, caught in the gap of a full century, the work beckons.

Édouard Vuillard’s Profil de femme [Woman in Profile] (c.1890) is dominated by its right-hand border’s uneven edge. The viewer might ask, first of all, whether the drawing was accomplished on a pre-cut scrap of paper, or if a more sprawling composition was edited down to this one view of a seated woman. Looking closely, it appears that certain marks continue off the paper’s edge while others respect its border. Almost all of the drawing’s lines follow a 45-degree angle, affecting a slight curve inherent in the artist’s wrist motion. Those that deviate are significant: the red outline of the figure’s lips and chin, the shoulder’s reworked curve, and the upright indication of the chair’s back post. This is a jittery field in which incongruous elements form a slight picture. What is being depicted? A woman is seated in a chair—that much is clear from the vertical strokes of the chair’s back. She doesn’t seem to be sewing, as Vuillard’s sitters frequently are; rather, fragmented by the paper’s cut, she appears solely engaged in sitting. So, this is a picture defined by difference, with directional deviations outlining a form against pattern. The diagonal marks operate against the sitter’s staid manner, perhaps issuing from another compositional element, now cropped out of the picture—a second figure or some architectural detail. But as the piece stands, the figure has no formal counterpoint other than the mysterious curve of the paper’s edge. We might interpret that cut edge as mirroring the woman’s seated posture, in that it suggests the outline of a back pressed against the slats of a chair, and we might begin to remember the pressure points felt when seated in overly rigid chairs in moments of our own lives. Then, this small pastel might read as a more unified picture, one that allows for an empathy toward its subject.

Directly opposite the Profil de femme, an untitled panel (c.1990) by Purvis Young is hung separately from its neighbors, which have been installed as a giant mural on the gallery’s walls, in reference to the painter’s Good Bread Alley installations. The lone panel depicts a pregnant woman standing in a field of green and yellow brushwork. An assortment of symbols and marks is overlaid on this background, some connoting celestial bodies, but others reading simply as line and shape. The central figure is filled in with the same brown pigment as the surrounding marks and, squinting, they might be perceived as resting on the same plane. The figure’s abrupt curves fall into place within the background pattern, as if conforming to its approximate grid. Looking closely, a number of drill holes and screws in the painting’s surface evidence the wood’s prior history, but, more importantly, begin to read as marks within the image. In the applied frame, another block of scrap wood juts out near the figure’s belly, a single brown dot daubed on its front, as if the woman’s navel had been displaced onto the wood itself. When viewed from the side, the whole structure yields a perpendicular picture plane, as Young has continued his painting to the interior face of one of the framing elements. With this multi-angled view, surface and image seem to meld into one: the blips and shifts in the support signaling back again to the central figure. As in the Vuillard, the material’s incidental qualities contribute to the image as a whole, and to the subject’s resonance.

That these two pieces join subject and form through a harmony of image and support is not proof of any substantial connection between their author’s oeuvres, and the pair may not warrant extended consideration. But, faced with the work’s current proximity, why not revel in its strange, absorbing links?

Contributor

Louis Block

Louis Block is a painter based in Brooklyn.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues