Whitehot Magazine

Jane Swavely at Magenta Plains

Installation view, Jane Swavely: Paintings, Magenta Plains, New York

Jane Swavely
Magenta Plains
149 Canal Street, New York, NY 10002
January 11–February 24, 2024

By EDWARD WAISNIS March 9, 2024

In what has turned out to be a triumphant exhibition, Jane Swavely presented paintings executed over the last couple of years, denoting a pared down phase of her practice to essentials that serve it well. The expediency of the work is alluded to in a somewhat cryptic statement Swavely made (referring to her paintings) she said: “they are better when they are past”. Does such a stance–the preference for looking forward that the statement implies–foretell a progressive agenda, or a statement of faith? Either way, moving forward serves her practice with advantage. By committing to pure abstraction, in scale reminiscent of the New York School, Swavely puts methods front and center. There is a preference for the one-shot, the unfussy; a reliance on rags to wipe away and highlight, together with the use of large flat brushes, givings the paintings their greasy, smeary, and particularly feathery atmospheric qualities.

Then, there are her experiences as studio assistant to Lois Lane and Brice Marden, which filters in with nods to ‘new image’ totemism and distinct color. Swavely has a penchant for contrasts between gritty, sooty, silvers that come across as though they have been admixed with charcoal, and sectors of often acid hues. Her use of silver has been linked with her oft-cited interest in cinema. In a recent interview she spoke of being effected by the compositions and photography found in Michelangelo Antonioni masterpiece “La Notte”. Then there is the art-historic lineage of the pigment–from Pollock to Warhol to Stella and Humphries–all of which are absorbed in Swavely’s usage, from emotive formalism to remove (chilliness). She has dragged Modernism into the twenty-first century, utilizing the benefit of time, distance and experience. And, yes, there are harbingers to the Ab-Ex trinity of Newman, Rothko and Still, in the work, that can also be viewed as best in a rearview mirror, allowing movement beyond the boundaries of isms.

 Jane Swavely, OID #3, 2021, oil on canvas, 56 x 44 inches

Upon entering the gallery one encounters “OID #3 Green”, 2021 hung above the front desk. It is a fantastic piece of  bucolic painting, in which smokey labyrinths of slashing brush strokes and washes hold one as if deep within a wood. Or, is it a murky interior, beyond a partially opened door that beckons us? The earliest, and smallest (56 x 44 inches) canvas in the show, it’s distinctiveness seemingly the criteria for setting it off from the main body of the exhibition. Chromatically, it forges a sisterhood with Moira Dryer’s casein panels.

The majority of the works have this delineation of ‘OID’ as a component of their titles. Swavely has said that, referring to this component, that she came upon its meaning a fragment of a work, a mere syllable, as in it’s usage as a suffix often implying an incomplete or imperfect resemblance to what is indicated by the preceding element. And, only later did she come across the three letter combination being used as an abbreviation for: object identifier. Is she pointing out the dependence her work has on preceding history, as in that it is somehow zomboid to the original?

Jane Swavely, Silver OID #6, 2022, oil on canvas, 90 x 90 inches

The gallery proper is lined with six monumental canvases. The largest, “Silver OID #6”, 2022, a diptych measuring seven-and-a-half-feet square, takes place of prominence, occupying the far central wall. By positing one figure, made up of a blackish/reddish/brownish column–with three-quarter of it sitting on the right edge of the left panel and one-quoter taking up the left edge of the right panel–there are evocations of nothing so much as an Oceanic or Easter Island totem. This impression is aided by the ‘chunks’ taken out of it along the uppermost edges by spots of overpaint and/or splatter from the surrounding field of silver. A flanking wall holds two 90 x 45 inch paintings, “Magenta OID”, 2023 and “Silver OID #7”, 2022, a work that Swavely has admitted having struggled with, including intervention by her dog, has led to a result that I would categorize it as involved with what has come to resemble something close to capturing movement. A close cousin to Pat Steir’s waterfalls, there is a rougher, brinier edge here, the flow having been applied by direct contact rather than pouring and washing with spray.

While those paintings become treatises on bisection, or centrality, a pair that share a wall, “Light Trap #3” and  “Light Trap #4”, both 2023, each 90 x 45 inches, hanging at a respectful distance from each go with another strategy. These twins each balance an abbreviated rectangle of rich color, with a billowing sail-like quality enhanced by their bendy shapes, bracketed by an L-shaped banding of signature silver. The respective zones are treated with the same atmospheric streakiness we have come to expect. Here Swavely has switched her titling regiment, from the evocative oids, with their intimation of likenesses, to focus the direct gaze at the holy grail of painting.

Jane Swavely, Light Trap #2, 2023, oil on canvas, 73 x 61 inches

The show closes out with “Light Trap #2”, 2023, predominated by brilliant yellows and oranges, delineated as three vertical sectors, the largest a little off-center, and highlighted by a ray running down the left sector that brought to mind illumination from a Dan Flavin sculpture, of all things, but more provocatively, it called to mind the astounding depiction of the angel Gabriel as a pure column of light in Henry Oshawa Tanner’s luminist “The Annunciation”, 1898 to be found in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Henry Oshawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1899, collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art

The interest that Swavely has culled from the art community recalls the excitement Susan Rothenberg was able to rally to her spare atmospheric imagery that, similar to  Swavely’s, relied on paramount figure/ground relationships. 

As a long-time denizen of the Bowery, whose locale has infiltrated her practice, it seems apt that Swavely’s commitment to her resolute career, finds a home at the head bulwark of this storied thoroughfare, giving us a new standard bearer. WM


Edward Waisnis

Edward Waisnis is an artist and filmmaker. Additionally, he is the Producer of two Quay Brothers films, Through the Weeping Glass and Unmistaken Hands, as well as having overseen the facilitation of their 2012 MoMA retrospective. His writing has appeared in Art New England, COVER, ARTextreme and STROLL.

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