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Harris Lieberman: A Painting Show or My Once in a While Not About Food Post

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Susanna Coffey, Stream, 2003, oil, 12” x 15” in

Okay, here’s how it happens: I enter the Harris Lieberman Gallery in their temporary space on the ground floor of 508 West 26th Street to see “A Painting Show.” I hadn’t planned on it; my friend Martha and I were gallery hopping and most of them were closed for the Memorial Day weekend. We start perusing the works and I’m saying to Martha, “Wow. This work is great. It’s really incredible. This is some of the best work I’ve seen in a while. I can smell the turpentine. This is really about painting . .  who are these artists?” and then we decide to go find out who all these new wonderful painters are.

Well, it turns out they are some of the biggest names in contemporary painting right now - painters like Amy Sillman and Cecily Brown - and I am floored because I have this theory. My theory is that sometimes your view of work is colored by the fame of the name; for instance you see the wall text saying it’s a Lee Krasner and then right away you think, before you even really look at the work, that it’s going to be amazing. It’s a theory that has made me wonder if I can ever see work objectively when it has someone’s famous name on it. So here was proof positive that it’s the work that speaks, and not the name.

But there was more: as I’m reading the list of artists, I notice they are all women. Nowhere on the gallery walls nor on the poster advertising the show is it mentioned that this is a show of “women painters.” And contrary to what you might think, this makes me really happy. I believe it does not serve women well to be what has come in the art world to be known as “ghetto-ized” - to be put in a category by ourselves as if we are only of any significance compared to each other, or somehow representative of only women’s experience. I tell the art gallery director this and commend him on not calling attention to the fact that these are all women, and he replies, most tellingly, that they set out only to find the best paintings for the show and that it became clear pretty quickly that a lot of the best paintings right now were being done by women. So, yes, though it may seem to contradict some of what I just wrote, I do feel some pride in that, being a woman. Because I’m proud of my gender and our accomplishments considering the obstacles stacked against us throughout history but ultimately I want what is right for women. And what is right for all artists, including women and any other subgroup, is to be equal and free to express any experience of the world that is authentic for us as unique human beings.

As for the show, you can go read the “art-speaky” description of it on NY Art Beat, which in my opinion tells you nothing you need to know about why this show is so compelling, or you can just go, which is what you must do if you love paintings. The painting above, by the way, is not in the show. It’s just one of my favorites by Susanna Coffey, and it’s the best example I could find of why I feel so strongly about this show: Painting today is about the larger ideas embedded in it and not just in the accurate presentation of things of the world. This can be confusing to people not familiar with its language. It’s become exclusive. This is unfortunate, because visual language is a passionate, quiet, gorgeous language that once plumbed, yields immense pleasure and joy, and sometimes even insight. It is poetic and surprising. It is revelatory. And it expresses something about human experience that just cannot be expressed any other way.

So what I love about the Susanna Coffey is this: You see the image, which is painted in a way that obviously has a conversation with the way painting was done in the past. But Coffey gives you clues to let you know that this painting is about more than a portrait and a war-torn landscape. Immediately, the viewer starts to ask questions. How can the woman stand with her back to this terrible scene, with her eyes closed? Is this about disconnection in general, or is the woman centering, finding a place of calm despite the state of the world? Then something else happens for the viewer - unable to answer these questions because any meaning we bring to a painting is ultimately our own fiction, our own compulsion to find meaning (which is partly what art is about) the viewer then looks for the larger poetic metaphors that transcend the particulars of this one image. Disconnection. Danger. Inner states of being. Psychological and emotional as well as literal light and darkness.

The one thing I do not like about this painting is that everything is recognizable. Coffey does not leave us anywhere to ponder the indecipherable quality of being a human being on this planet. No blurry patches, no ambiguous shapes, no color out of place. And that is what is so great about “A Painting Show” because it contains paintings that do just that - they offer us nonsensical images, odd arrangements, conceptual puzzles, surfaces that glitter or drip or undulate or lie on the floor or question just about every tenet established in the art world.

I’ll leave you with a painting that is by an artist in the show - Amy Sillman - though this is not the exact painting she has in this particular exhibit. But don’t settle for the jpeg. If you’re anywhere near NYC go see it and quick, its closing in 6 days (closed Sunday). Don’t look at the images online only - that’s like watching fireworks on TV. And who wants to do that?

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Amy Sillman, oil,

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