James Cohan Gallery
June 22 - July 28, 2023
Gallery Exhibition at 52 Walker Street
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, July 2023
One of the A.I.R. Gallery founders, Mary Grigoriadis, now in her eighties, put up an excellent show of geometric paintings, made up of muted colors (often reds) and, usually, irregularly shaped forms. Her works, which belong to the Pattern and Decoration movement, stem from women’s art in the 1960s. The artist, a gifted colorist who places her deep-set hues in designs that tend to play out in stripes, has established in her geometric, jagged patterns a formal emphasis and a mystical, evocative world. The Middle East is an inspiration for one who senses an often a spiritual outlook. One work includes in its title the word “portal" and a sense we are entering a borderline world, in which boundaries between inner and outer beauty and hidden insights, merge.
As a result, the artist’s abstractions, esoteric, filled with repetitions of simple forms such as rectangles and triangles, painted mostly in red and blue, determine dense but non-objective constructions. It would make sense that they belong to the later part of the 20th century, a time of experimental image-making, particularly among women. The paintings do group together closely on a formal level, but they are also different enough, when considered on a case-by-case basis, that their individuality is preserved.
In the 1979-80 painting called Ravenna’s Eve, Grigoriadis uses her well-established language of dark-red stripes to work out her signature shapes: forms like direction signals, multicolored stripes leading this way and that, shapes copying themselves as they establish complexity without clutter. Empty spaces, usually polygonal in form, allow the artist to set up configurations that resemble the support for a bridge. The stripes, muted but deeply hued, also repeat Grigoriadis’s penchant for colorful structures that could easily establish an abstract, suggestively architectural or Cubist language. We remember that Ravenna is a very old city in northeast Italy–as well as Cubism’s reliance on primal structure as a support for the difficulties in fully understanding non-objective art.
Usually, the works have no contact with a clear formal development that would push them toward a figurative reading or, alternatively, an abstract design. In Isfahan (1973), the image is as non-objective as that found in the other paintings, but the title of the painting–a direct reference to a city and province of the same name in Iran–helps us place the decorative, geometric imagery. Still, the image is thoroughly free of any suggestion of something recognizable. In this work, a thick, dark red semi-circle occurs in the center of the composition. On either side of that image are groups of golden-yellow balls, while something looking like a container is supported by four sets of green, frond-shaped leaves. In each case, two fronds meet at a point.
One assumes that the imagery bears a relation, subtle but evident, between the artwork’s pattern and the far-away city in the Middle East. The artist has several works with place names referring to Middle Eastern sites; perhaps her manner of working reflects the religious and decorative visuals–the holy geometry–of the culture in Iran. We cannot know without having a greater knowledge of Iranian culture, and would have to read the signs in a formal sense rather than socially or spiritually in concept.
In Portal Series (1984), Grigoriadis has presented us with a light blue/copper green structure indicating the barest outlines of an entrance: a single horizontal line for a top and two vertical lines on either end of the line supporting the roof. The rest of the composition is filled with repetitive, regular diagonals that move the image, like most of the artist’s work, into an approximation of self-taught art.
I don't think this is a deliberate attempt by Grigoriadis to be naive or less than complicated; rather, the work stands as a sophisticated attempt to render the imagery of patterned decoration in an effective fashion. The designs transform the decoration into something elegant, beyond the seeming lack of complexity we might find as a problem in Grigoriadis’s art.
In the visionary work titled Prairie Song (1980), a tripartite form–a vertical with two legs extending at the base of the vertical–seems to result from showing untouched canvas. Jagged triangular forms, much like teeth, line the two legs of the triangle, one group pointed up, and the other down. At the bottom of the painting, are two stripes, one decorated with straight lines, and the other with curved, slightly serpentine forms. It is important to acknowledge the specificities of Grigoriadis’s paintings, which move beyond the seemingly self-taught into a statement of elegance fraught with spiritual insight. This doesn’t happen very often now, but Grigoriadis has made it clear that her art uses pattern and decoration as a platform for otherworldly thoughts. Her voice goes back a long way, but this is very contemporary art, and her archaisms are meant to be adjuncts to what is best described as art made now –not as scholarly comment. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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