Dona Nelson continues to prove herself as a skilled interrogator of painting. With impatience and glee, she addresses the fundamental questions that have dogged painters over the past century—why, what and how. By turns obstreperous, sexy, violent and transcendent, the six canvases in Brain Stain manage a kind of metaphysical back flip by using bodily experience (both the artist's and our own) to point us inward towards the cerebral aspects of painting and its history.
Nelson has spent many years thinking about the possibilities posed by abstraction, leading her to make various bodies of work that sometimes appear related, sometimes not. Her current exhibition contains five gelatinous abstractions and "Walnut Way," an arid, unprimed picture made by rubbing charcoal over the bas-relief of a Nativity scene. The relative abstraction or representation in each of Nelson's pictures, far from indulging in the current taste for aesthetic smorgasbord, instead underscores her interest in painting processes and how they generate symbiotic images. The artist's well-known antipathy toward displaying a recognizable or "signature style" can be traced back to the experimental attitudes that permeated the New York City art world in the late 1960s when she was a student in the Whitney Program. The practice of painting at that time had been suffocated by Late Modernism's formalist and Marxist theorizing while simultaneously trivialized by Pop Art. Serious painters attempted to revitalize it by seeking direction and inspiration in the more opened-ended forms of performance, video and sculpture.
One of Nelson's abiding interests has been how to make a painting without "painting," i.e., without making an autographic mark. In the large-scale "Mitchell Street," the surface is covered with viscous, dark green skeins of cheesecloth and gravity-defying drips and spills that come from all directions. A high-pitched yellow-green seeps up from beneath the cheesecloth, alerting us to a surface that has been literally washed and worn down by repeated applications of a high-pressure water hose. Raised, snotty strands of cloth crisscross the stained field, picking up and holding large areas of Pthalo green paint. Nelson's use of cheesecloth to mediate between figure and ground is one of her more brilliant moves. Building up the canvas by adding muslin and cheesecloth before pouring the paint, Nelson creates a self-reflexive relationship in which the figure is always pointing back to the ground. Because they are both made of the same cotton material, the figure and ground are no longer oppositional. Acrylic medium becomes the goo that binds them together, like to like. [read full article]