Line and Color: Paintings of People
New work by Agnes Grochulska
May 17 - June 14, 2019
By DANIEL MAIDMAN, June 2019
Phrases get stuck in my head, sometimes lying dormant for years before circumstances call them back to life. One such phrase is “division of the plane,” a term Escher used to describe his exercises in tessellation.
I ran across the term as a child, and then it went to sleep. It began to stir again when an artist friend, I forget who, was discussing Lucian Freud’s etchings. This friend pointed out that while most of us instinctively wrap lines and shading around a form, Freud cuts across forms.
This alienates the viewer by producing a brief disorientation in looking at the image. We have to pierce a veil of misdirection before the image we know is there becomes apparent. Because the draughtsmanship of the fundamental features – eyes, nose, mouth, outline of head – is sound, we can find our way across the tangle of arcs and slashes. But the more we look, the more we recognize that for Freud, the features may ultimately be secondary. They seem to serve as scaffolds for the tapestry of arcs and slashes where he expresses what is really animating him: his sense of flesh as chaos, as battlefield.
In Freud we have unorthodox construction of form, but he builds an image with regions of value, not with lines. So he is not really dividing the plane.
The term division of the plane really jumped into focus for me when I began studying the very line-oriented work of two contemporary artists: Agnes Grochulska and Curtis Jensen. Since Grochulska has a solo show up right now, so I figured it was a good time to discuss her work and Jensen’s.
Grochulska has narrowed the Freudian region of value to a pure calligraphic line. In her willingness to cut into and across forms with her line, she approaches Schiele. But she has a horror vacui that Schiele does not – Schiele draws what interests him, and then he stops. Grochulska conceptualizes her mark as being obliged to respond to the entire area of the page or canvas. By nature, she is dividing the plane.
Note that you would never confuse her work with Schiele’s work, or Freud’s.
You could see Alice Neel in her, though she’s one of these not uncommon cases where she didn’t know of her predecessor when she developed her methods. But if you look more closely, you will see she is not Neel at all. Grochulska speaks most pointedly in terms of these formal elements: the divisions of the plane, and the character of the lines that divide the plane. And in this domain, she is blessed with that rarest of qualities, originality. Nobody else sees as she sees, chooses as she chooses, draws as she draws. As an artist, I am envious of her – not only of her originality, but of its integration into an artistic vision:
Consider how she has performed her analytic procedure here – the division of the plane, the calligraphic marks – and then recomposed the parts, building back up to a centered image with psychological mass: she expresses time spent with a friend, time spent looking, affection not only for a person but for an irreplaceable shared afternoon. Like all art rooted in experience, she has used paint to defeat time, saving the precious transient from permanent vanishing.
Startlingly, I know another artist whose originality is also based on a foregrounded division of the plane.
Jensen is technically using his lines to mark the fundamentals of structure. Consider those five lines blossoming from the center of the near cheek. Jensen has shaded the region between each one differently, because they define different basic planes of the cheek. It is possible to choose any number of north stars to guide this kind of analysis of form – but Jensen is the only artist I know who would think to start from the middle of the cheek like that, and, further, draw such strangely elegant curved lines at the boundaries of planes.
Grochulska starts from a place of subjectivity in her line – her line describes what she sees, but it responds just as much to her visual and emotional insights. Jensen seeks a more analytic procedure, but he runs into the “beautiful monsters” scenario that painter Stephen Wright observed in Ingres – that as the procedure was refined toward pure rationality, the strangeness of the images that came from it, the beautiful monsters, increasingly reflected nothing so much as the internal peculiarities of Ingres himself. Jensen’s rationalism does not conceal his creativity – it exposes it.
Jensen’s method leads naturally to two outcomes: a buildup of value which gradually obscures the linework which underpins it, as we see in Study of Lisa #12, a composition which arose from line but ended in value:
But it can also lead to a more explicit embrace of line, a scenario where the line is transformed from serving only to describe, to being the point in itself. We see this in Paint Me a Horse Then. This is the end stage which Freud reaches in Bella, and which Grochulska shows in Elaine 2. These three artworks depend on the same element of design – line as division of the plane – but they look distinct because three profoundly original artists found their home in this less-common element. It’s an extraordinary thing, and worth thinking about a little.
Before I go, I’d like to add a more personal note, and a recommendation.
Personally: I bring you my honest thoughts on art, but I also don’t hold myself apart from the living world of art and artists. I am a huge admirer of Grochulska and Jensen, and I’ve been online friends with both of them for years. Moreover, I collect their work. I have two of Grochulska’s drawings and three of Jensen’s. I own work by maybe eighty different artists. My office and studio walls are covered with work by living artists. It brings me great joy to look at art which I love and have had the good fortune to welcome into my life.
Here’s my recommendation: if you like to look at art, then become an active viewer. And by this I mean not only emotionally and spiritually engaging with the work that interests you. I also mean buying it. Some art is very expensive. Most art is less expensive. A lot of art can be gotten inside of a sane budget, or only a little outside of it. If art has been speaking to you for a while, I recommend making it a financial priority to bring it home and spend every day with it. You will make a difference in the life of your artist, but more importantly, you will make a difference in your own life. Your specific choices of art represent steps on a unique path that will make your life more filled with love and generosity and consciousness. It is a good way to live; make a gift of it to yourself. WM
Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnews, Forbes, W, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York.
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