Alex Griffin: Passages
On ViewNancy Margolis Gallery
November 2, 2021 – January 7, 2022
New York, NY
Alex Griffin’s first solo exhibition, Passages, at Nancy Margolis Gallery, is a phantasmagoric daydream. The works are filled with quiet subtleties and dark histories that are left with a whimsical afterglow. The show is built upon 11 small to medium-sized paintings which makes for an intimate spatial experience. That same sense of intimacy moves from the viewer to each piece and back again. Although the paintings traffic in Americana and an aesthetics of quotidian events, the act of peering into the environments that Griffin has recalled quietly from mind to painted surface feels timeless, like a faded photograph or conjured memory.
Layers live within Griffin’s work. Within his paintings are traces of past etchings and brushstrokes that lay gently on top of scraped oil paint and wax. Remnants of earlier mark-making and underpainting are exposed by pockets of fog-like haze, blurring these past images—figures that sit against bleak shades of green, gray, and blue, as well as gusts of pink and violet hues. In Winton Street (2021), three row houses center the work like a modernist abstraction. Each is unique in their style. The houses, from left to right, begin to fade: doorways, windows, and rooflines less and less distinguishable from one to the next. There is a figure in white, whose body angle suggests forward movement, exuding urgency. The head of the figure fades away like the last row house. In front of the figure lies even more ethereal matter that also appears to be in motion, as if the body is taken up by wind or the friction of the figure’s moving garments. Griffin’s paintings pause time while simultaneously educing a fleeting emotional and physical surge. Here lies the conflict within his works: they occupy a state of the in-between, like a word you search for that remains ineffable, or a memory that has been falsely created but nonetheless stays with you.
June’s Flowers (2019) has an uneasiness that is felt from Griffin’s agitated brushstrokes and deep-carved lines. The multiple perspective planes and layers with etched-in movements, coupled with a dreamlike haze, produce a sense of both confusion and escape that radiate from within the piece. Here we encounter two versions of bodies, one superimposed upon the other. The first is clad in a dress and incised into a gray square, as if drawn onto a wall. Behind this image is a figure that has a dynamic liveness conveyed through active brush strokes. The etched figure on the smooth gray square, by contrast, is still and only possesses what could be the shadow of a face gazing upon the flowers. It looks almost like an erased image from a blackboard, chalk smeared across the surface but not quite illegible. Griffin’s constant use of layers of paint in his works—and his combination of images among and upon other images—suggests numerous potential histories. “Who is June?” one might ask, and “What is the significance of her flowers?” The artist provides us no easy answers, and this openness allows each piece to unveil itself at its own pace.
In Griffin’s Roxborough (Violet) (2021), there is softness and movement that ebbs and flows between senses of the chaotic and the passive. Through painting, Griffin is able to express the fleeting emotions of the windup and letdown, anticipation and release. He accomplishes this with many distinct paint applications and gestural strokes. In Roxborough (Violet) Griffin renders a house with a hard edge on the left, distinguishing it from the sky above, while on the right, the house melds into the sky and becomes an undifferentiated form. A tree beside the house, which draws the eye up from the trunk to the black mass of its foliage, is painted with a heaviness and thickness that provides a tactility to the surface of the canvas. But there is also the sense of wind, movement through the leaves. The home holds many memories, the door clogged by heavy shadows, the top window blurred away. Its purple window draws the viewer into the most central point of the painting. There is an immense feeling of stasis and stagnation—until your eye climbs the base of the pale white tree, to the top, to breathe in the air of a sky blurred amongst the leaves.
This exhibition is a testament to Griffin’s ability to express a variety of concepts dealing with space and time, history and story in paintings that feel both personal and idiosyncratic. Griffin’s work speaks to dichotomies of false memory and actual experience, and to the small stillnesses of detail and intimacy. This is something that is hard to experience unless felt directly, like a trauma turned into a triumph. It is made palpable as a weight that slides off one’s shoulders, or the sweet scent of flowers that wrap around you, swirling in the wind. Griffin’s paintings aren’t only about his histories or memories, but the act of one recounting such experiences within themselves.