Whitehot Magazine

Reflections on Refraction

Installation view. Courtesy of the artist.


By NOAH TAVLIN March 19, 2024 

The act of drawing or painting a hand can feel like your hand is having an identity crisis. I think most artists would agree that hands are famously difficult to render. The complexity of the human hand is one explanation. Minor imprecisions can result in lumpy gloves. Beyond the anatomical problem, drawing a hand–any hand, let alone one’s own hand–with one’s hand (as one must), can feel like approaching a boundary of the medium.

Silvia Muleo’s paintings sidestep the hand problem through distortion. In her series of small-scale paintings, currently on-view at New Collectors, hands are depicted through filters such as acrylic, glass, suggestions of mirrors, and more ambiguous materials. To paint these distortions requires a different kind of precision; one that demands that the artist situate themself within the logic they are depicting. 

This work is part of a two-person show, Refraction, which is joined by a series of psychedelic landscapes by Alex McAdoo. These two bodies of work share an interest in perspective, both in terms of objective spatial perspective (compositions that recede into space), and in terms of the subjective nature of perception. Through this duality, the two artists serve as each others’ foil. 

McAdoo’s Emersonian landscape compositions toy with traditional one point perspective by expanding the vanishing point to a circle or oval that bends space and light around itself. The Colors are pulled apart and are dragged into abstraction. Some areas swirl like they’re being sucked into a black hole, and others remain static. The perspective structure is challenged, but not broken. 

Muleo paints with muted neutrals that, along with their small scale and closely-cropped compositions, gives her work a quiet, intimate effect. Yet there are subtle moments of levity that come from the playful shapes that the distortions create. The paintings begin and end in unexpected places–in Split-Tilt Tilt-Split the painting wraps cheekily around the sides of the canvas; while in Face Time, the painting is contained within a single quadrant, surrounded by negative space. What could be considered academic boundary-testing is tempered by Muleo’s understated palette, soft brushstrokes, and modest scale allows her work to maintain a pleasant warmth and intimacy.

Installation view. Courtesy of the artist.

Implicit within Muleo’s hand paintings and McAdoo’s landscapes is a response to image-editing software. The perspective skew and effects such as warping and fisheye lens are well familiar to anyone who has done amateur picture editing on their phone. It feels appropriate that these effects should be reconsidered now within the realm of painting. After all, painting is a historic medium for the kinds of flattering touch-ups that have become the norm for everyone today. As these software become more and more user-friendly (to the point that the “user” is hardly necessary and complex edits can be performed by artificial intelligence in mere seconds), transposing these effects into painting affirms that a skillful hand and traces of a human touch are merits in and of themselves. Refraction reminds us that a painting is a screen just as much as our phones and laptops are screens. Our hands still have roles to play. The nature of that role is personal. 

Refractions is on view through March 30th at New Collectors, located at 191 Henry Street in New York, NY. WM


Noah Tavlin

Noah Tavlin is an artist and writer living and working in New York City. He has all of his teeth. Instagram: @noahtavlin

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