Warren Isensee, Hsiao Chen, and Sydney Ball

Tuesday Night Painting #21

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Warren Isensee
Deep Shit, 2018, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Hello painters, 

One of my motivations for beginning this letter was to keep in touch with my former painting students, but another motive was simply to keep myself connected to painting.

There have been times when I've been too wrapped up with teaching, or busy working on other projects, that I couldn't devote any time to getting into a groove in my painting studio. This summer is one of those times, as I'm moving away from Boston, back home to Pittsburgh, and then (eventually) to Texas.

Through various means (emails from galleries, newspaper reviews, Instagram, etc) I'm constantly learning about new artists. This newsletter provides a nice resource and outlet for myself to look deeper into and find connections between artists that I never would have otherwise.

An example is an artist we examined last week, Mary Judge, and an artist to look into for this week, Warren Isensee. Both artists have based their compositions off of a rosette shape, with a central starburst and petals growing outwardly. Both pieces are centrally composed with similar forms, but the color palettes differ greatly. Judge opts for subtler, hazier colors created by her pounced pigments, while Isensee uses flat and bright colors in a combination of pastels and neons.
Above: Mary Judge
Above: Warren Isensee
Both artists create abstract patterns that have a biomorphic bend to them. Isensee's blobby forms and symmetrical compositions create what his gallery describes as a "hypnotic and soothing" effect. Staring at one might make you think you're looking at a very well behaved lava lamp. 

Isensee's forms aim to celebrate "vibrancy, dynamism and spontaneous movement" with the end goal of creating a sense of optimism in the viewer (says the gallery's press release).

What do you think, is this the case for you? I actually do think they are pretty happy looking, joyful looking paintings. Bright, primary colors will do that, especially combined with the painting's soft abstract forms.

Even still, right now you may need something a lot stronger to get the hit of optimism you need. And although their forms are similar, I believe Mary Judge's work has a more introspective and reflective effect, rather than straight joyful.
Two paintings by Warren Isensee from 2020.
Top: Something Strange, 2020, Oil on canvas, 65 x 76 inches
Below: Inner Outer, 2020, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches
After absorbing the cheerful, poppy bursts of color and form, what interested me the most about Isensee's paintings is the journey that the artist went on to get to this point. In her NY Times' review, Roberta Smith tells us that the artist's paintings have been pretty "good" but very recently the work has "taken a sharp turn for the better."

This was a very intriguing introduction to a brand new artist for me. What causes an artist to make the sharp turn from good to much better? (It reminds me of Sebastian Smee's writing on Diebenkorn, where one painting suddenly transformed the critic's opinion of the artist's oeuvre from good to unbelievably good). I had to go back into Isensee's back catalogue to see where he was coming from and where he ended up.
Left: Class Trip, oil on canvas, 2005
Right: Triple Mint, oil on canvas, 2007
Above: Juicy Fruit, oil on canvas, 26 x 28 in, 2012
In Isensee's earlier paintings, the debt to Modernist painters like Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt, and even sculptor Dan Flavin is clear. The colors are neon, the edges are crisp. They are technically very accomplished paintings. Likewise, the artist worked hard to perfect the colors in each composition, saying that it could possibly "take hours to mix the particular yellow I need to light up the adjacent orange".

Many of these works come from the smaller colored pencil studies that the artist makes. He describes their structures as a kind of "primordial, original architecture". Personally, from this era of the artist's work, I'd take the colored pencil pieces any day over the larger paintings.
Above: two 3.5 x 3.5 inch colored pencil pieces from 2013
Above: two 60 x 60 inch oil on canvas pieces from 2014
The colored pencil pieces have a softness to them, and yet a stronger personality than the larger pieces. I think it comes down to the delicateness of the edges: they are nearly straight, but still a little fuzzy. It's endearing in a way to see this tiny piece that was made so carefully and intricately. That is lost somewhat in the larger oil on canvas works.

The two large canvas pieces above have a boxy, rigid composition. Again, parts of these bigger pieces remind me of the sculptures of Dan Flavin. They have a colder, less human feeling, like they were produced in the same factory that made the tubes of fluorescent light. The colored pencil pieces are looser, more fun, and contain more "geometric high jinks".
In her review of this latest show, Roberta Smith says it seemed like the dam had burst. I think loosening up and letting go of the grid was the key for Isensee, and I think expanding on what was successful in the colored pencil pieces was how he got there. Abandoning the modernist grid led all of these tantalizing shapes and colors to come rushing out, creating a strong series of works that are "tremendously thrilling for both mind and eye."
Warren Isensee's latest exhibit is on view now at Miles McEnery Gallery in NYC. it can also be viewed at the gallery's "online viewing room" here.
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In my beginning is my end

  • "In my beginning is my end" is the title of Hsiao Chin's recent exhibit at Mark Rothko's art center in Lithuania.
  • I enjoyed learning about the work of Hsiao Chin and how he introduced principles of Eastern philosophy into the heavily Western-centric field of Abstract Expressionism.
  • Chin traveled extensively in his younger years, including trips to the US, West Germany, and Italy
  • He is said to have been instrumental in "bringing Chinese contemporary art, and creative voices from Chinese diaspora, into the Western conversation".

Sydney Ball's NYC decade

  • The gallery Sullivan + Strumpf is celebrating the late Australian artist Sydney Ball with a look back at his work from the 60s and 70s
  • Ball studied and exhibited in NYC with first and second generation abstract artists like Hans Hofman, Mark Rothko, and Lee Krasner
  • If Hsiao Chin functioned as the ambassador of Chinese art to the Western abstract world, Ball was his Australian counterpart
  • Ball brought back ideas from NYC and shared them with other Australians, culminating in the landmark 1968 exhibition, The Field
  • Somewhat similar to Isensee above, Sydney Ball would first work on his ideas in his sketchbook in colored pencil or crayon.
  • I love seeing the potential color combinations coming together and the different shapes interlocking.
  • You can read more about the late artist's working process in this interview here and see more of his diverse work at the artist's Artsy page.
And now, here is your weekly reminder that this newsletter is free but not cheap. 
Chip in a few $$
I've been spending more and more hours each week researching and writing about new artists for me and you to lovingly gaze at. So if you can chip in a few dollars, I would very much appreciate it. 
And so we reach the end of another Tuesday Night letter. This is a random collection of the best tunes I've been hearing this week. Hope you enjoy!

DSCO - Sweet Trip
George Clanton - Livin' Loose
Mort Garson - Swingin' Spathiplhyllums
Kidnap - Moments (Ben Bohmer & Nils Hoffman)
Haruomi Hosono - Sports Men

See you next time!
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