Twelve Hours in New York City

When my partner and I decided to leave New Orleans, proximity to New York City was an important factor for me. Living in the city itself has never made sense for me due to the expense and intensity of it all, but there is an undeniable energy to being there. I associate it with the feeling of cool fall air and endless possibility. I took many bus trips to New York while I was in art school, so it’s packed with nostalgia for that time in my life.

Now Durham may not be a two hour bus ride away, but it is a short and cheap plane flight away, so I decided to buy a ticket to spend exactly one day walking around the city seeing art exhibits.

 
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My first stop was Doron Langberg’s show Likeness at the Yossi Milo Gallery.

Doron Langberg creates large-scale portraits from observation of family, close friends and lovers. Langberg’s visualizations of queerness—both his own and those of the many queer subjects depicted—move beyond the traditional shorthand of signs and easily recognizable queer iconographies. Instead, Langberg contextualizes queer sexuality and intimacy within larger narratives of everyday life. Read more

Langberg’s work is this beautiful mixture of loud and quiet moments. When I first saw it, I was struck by the scale and activity. Most of the paintings were massive, and the colors were larger than life, but there was something quiet about the subjects themselves. There was a portrait of a couple embracing in what looks like a crowded bar, a family sitting and reading together, lovers sharing an intimate moment on a bed. While the paintings were visually stimulating, the moments were relatable and calm, nothing that would grab your attention across the room the way these paintings do.

One of the most interesting things about the work, which unfortunately doesn’t translate on a screen, is the use of texture. Langberg uses the full range, from transparent washes to layered clumps of textured paint. At times he draws into the paint to capture details, and areas have been built up and sanded down. On one of his paintings, he used a piece of plastic to push the paint around, and then transferred the ghost image to canvas. You can feel how curious, playful, and experimental his work is when you look at it, and that’s part of what I love about it.

 
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Next, I went to Jenna Gibbon’s show When I Looked at You the Light Changed at Fredericks & Freiser.

Some of Gribbon’s representational divergences are intended to discomfit the viewer, most noticeably the neon pink used to depict the nipples of her female nudes, which snare the eye in a twofold trap, encouraging the delectation of this flesh and simultaneously provoking self-consciousness of the prurient gaze. By inviting the viewer into her private domain—offering intimate moments of memory and present-day life—Gribbon makes us voyeurs and witnesses to an idiosyncratic history, in which time and desire twist and fold, like her sinuous figures. Read more

Gibbon’s work has clear historical influences, but with a modern twist. Her flesh is creamy and her paint handling sometimes reminds me of John Singer Sargent. Her show was a combination of small memories and grand paintings of women wrestling, tied together with her fluid paint handling and small pops of neon colors.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of the nude, and whether or not there is a way to paint nude women without sexualizing them and subjecting them to the history of the male gaze. I loved seeing her partially nude women acting as agents, wrestling and playing. The neon nipples were a challenge to look, an invitation to think about why you were looking and what it meant. The nudity in these paintings didn’t feel like it was for anyone but the women involved. It was playful, tough, and honest.

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On my way out of Chelsea, I stumbled upon Hayv Kahraman’s show Not Quite Human at the Jack Shainman Gallery.

All of her works are ultimately reflections on otherness and othering as a form of dehumanization, focusing on the gap between the immigrant, non-white, genderly marked other and the way she is perceived by the white hetero-patriarchal normative same. The art of contortion, selected as the main metaphor of this series, is a liminal space per se. In its euromodern commodified form it belongs to the forbidden realm of freak shows with their typical temporary cancellation of decency prescriptions for the white male subject. The audience of the freak show does not identify itself with the freak, but on the contrary, rejoices in its own normality even if it is thrilled with a temporary seduction into/by the abnormal, the sexualized taboo. Ann McClintock described this effect as “involving the fetishistic principle of collection and display and the figure of panoramic time as commodity spectacle”. Stretching the boundaries of normativity, it accentuates such forms of othering as exoticization, fetishization and dehumanizing eroticism. Read more

I immediately recognized Kahraman’s work from a piece I saw at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Her paintings were controlled, delicate, and knowing. Raw linen peaks through washes, and the subtle lights in the skin tones is built up so gracefully. I love the use of pattern, the abstraction of the hair, and the simplicity of the bodies juxtaposed with the specificity of the faces.

The poses feel performative, but the faces ask us why we are looking, what we see there. I tend to gravitate towards looser, more expressive work, but the rigidity and specificity in these paintings is so crucial to their meaning. They feel almost decorative, like a painted object, but the subject is human, or not quite human according to the title of the show. Kahraman does a beautiful job conveying a complex experience of feeling othered, and gracefully invites the viewer to examine their roll in this experience.

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Of everything I saw that day, my favorite paintings were the four Jennifer Packer pieces I found at the Whitney Biennial.

Packer’s paintings are rendered in loose line and brush stroke using a limited color palette, often to the extent that her subject merges with or retreats into the background. Suggesting an emotional and psychological depth, her work is enigmatic, avoiding a straightforward reading. “I think about images that resist, that attempt to retain their secrets or maintain their composure, that put you to work,” she explains. “I hope to make works that suggest how dynamic and complex our lives and relationships really are.” Read more

I can’t even begin to describe how impactful it was for me to see Jennifer Packer’s work in person. I bought a book of her paintings several months ago and had no idea that she was featured in the Biennial exhibit. I was hungry and walking through the exhibit pretty quickly when I ran into her work, which stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked for a long time, left for lunch, and came right back.

Her largest piece took up an entire wall and her smallest piece required that you walk right up to it and read it like a book. Somehow, they were equally intimate. Her work masterfully navigates the balance between what’s said and left unsaid. There is such a presence to her paintings, her figures, and the brief window she is giving you into their life.

She seems to begin her paintings with vibrant color washes, so when a moment of negative space is left, it’s activated by the color. Her drawings show through in layers, such that you can watch her seeking her subject in a single moment. She plays with opacity, transparency and her paint application in a way that obscures details but conveys presence, sometimes abandoning depth of form in favor of symbolic renderings of objects. The way it all works together is awe inspiring, and nearly brought me to tears. Her figure of the painting in repose is one of the best paintings I have ever had the pleasure of seeing in person.

 
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I have to say, after witnessing Jennifer packer’s work, the rest of the day was kind of a blur. This was the work I went to New York to see, the paintings I didn’t even know I was looking for. I followed the Whitney with a trip to the Guggenheim, saw the incredible show “Defacement”: The Untold Story featuring work by Basquiat, ate gelato, walked through Central Park, and then hopped a train to the airport.

I hope that this trip is the first of many. I remember what it was like to be in New York looking at art as a student, and after so many more years of time spent painting, I understand the work better now. I know what I am looking for, what I’m drawn to, and what there is to learn from a painting. It’s enriching in a way it couldn’t possibly be before, and that is the exciting part of having this lifelong relationship to painting: it unfolds and deepens in ways that only time and experience will allow.

Jeffrey Arlyn