25th Street: Joan Mitchell v Joan Mitchell v Joel Shapiro
by Meena Hasan
The contemporary art galleries in Chelsea often function as if they were a World Cup football tournament. Each gallery is a distinct team with its own colors and energy (just imagine Hauser & Wirth as the fun-loving, stylish team of Brazil, David Zwirner as cool, clean Germany, Gagosian as well groomed Spain and Sikemma Jenkins taking the odd-ball, unbeatable Netherlands).
A gallery picks, chooses, grooms and manicures their specific team-members over a period of a few years in preparation for their public debut. The teams are then pitted against each other in groups, or in city blocks as this case may be. They embrace their status as participants in their ‘contact-sport’ by competing in close proximity with each other, shoving, fouling, assisting, dancing, passing and stretching.
On my most recent visit to Chelsea I could see the yellow cards flying through the air and I could hear the sound of friendly butt-slaps as the teams and players sweatily battled it out. Cheim & Read, now showing an energetic exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s Trees, shares a friendly banter with their neighbor across the street, Lennon, Weinberg Inc., currently showing Mitchell’s The Black Drawings and Related Works 1964 – 1967.
The pairing of the two shows offers a comprehensive look at Mitchell’s distinct and physical mark-making, as well as her ideas about color, light and composition. Her Black Drawings, many of which are also of trees, stand strong across the street from her singularly gorgeous painting, Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1978. I appreciate seeing the pages ripped out of her sketchbook that offer not just preparatory views for a big painting, but also intimate and personal works in and of themselves that are full of experiential emotion. There is an admirable variety as each drawing explores the many variations on the color black in a delightfully surprising manner, moving effortlessly between drawing and painting mediums.
Down the street from Lennon, Weinberg Inc. is another show of works on paper by Joel Shapiro at Pace Gallery. I am a big fan of works on paper because, for some reason, they can be treated as less precious and sometimes reveal a directness in the artist’s touch. In other words, the paper can hold all the secrets. So, I was happily surprised to find myself at two shows, back to back, consisting primarily of drawings.
Joel Shapiro’s works on paper are directly related to his sculptures. They depict odd bulbous forms swimming around their pages. The drawings are sometimes folded to create a symmetry of form. They are made of gouache and charcoal, which at times, meet quite happily to create effective textures, patterns and tonal forms. A number of the works on paper, located at the back of the gallery, depict figures created out of the pressure of folds and pushes. The figures are made of mirrored forms, such as pin-wheel arms and levitating spirits that are sometimes lying or sitting at tables, alluding to an autopsy of an alien half-living corpse. These last pictures frame the others in the context of the human body, our own anatomy and human organs.
Both Joan Mitchell’s Black Drawings and Joel Shapiro’s Works on Paper reveal the two artists’ disciplined exploration of their own repeating forms and compositions. Shapiro’s takes on a more formal attitude that just touches the edge of humor, while Mitchell’s works display her inclination towards sincere emotional expression. Many of Shapiro’s works lack the painterly exploratory touch that Mitchell embraces wholeheartedly. Instead Shapiro strives for a pooling of material that creates the effect of a disorienting and weightless accumulation in motion.
Joan Mitchell’s drawings might represent a projection of the inner psyche onto the outside world whereas Joel Shapiro’s might serve as imagined close observations of our own bodies. Both shows have their merits and faults and both are visually playful in their varieties within repetition. Luckily, there are no goals or stats in Chelsea and certainly no objective winner to declare (of course, if I were discussing the buying and selling of art, or anything outside of the simple activity of looking and creating visual dialogues, that would be a whole other story). Instead we remain in an endlessly looped all-star game rife with substitutions, dirty fouls and the occasional mutual respect.
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