Patience and Care Engender Paintings in Perpetual Motion

“Slow and seasoned”: That’s how a press release describes the paintings of Joanne Freeman on exhibition at Lohin Geduld Gallery.

“Slow and seasoned”: That’s how a press release describes the paintings of Joanne Freeman on exhibition at Lohin Geduld Gallery. It’s prudent to be wary of the promotional verbiage accompanying visual art. More often than not, words overstate the merits of the work or, as is typical in our post-Conceptualist age, attempt to establish a much-needed justification. Yet “slow and seasoned” is just about right for Ms. Freeman’s paintings. The phrase expresses, if not the core of the art, then much that is distinctive about it.

Ms. Freeman’s pliant geometric abstractions are the antithesis of art that aspires to sound-bite status. They encourage the long look—and reward it, too. Ms. Freeman’s process and materials foster the kind of deliberation necessary to focus and animate pictorial form: She arrives at each picture through the successive layering of stenciled patterning. Oil paint, a slow-drying medium, doesn’t readily lend itself to this manner of working; it must require considerable patience. Otherwise, the crisp, taped edges and dense surfaces that Ms. Freeman favors would turn into mush.

Chief among the ironies—and pleasures—inherent in Ms. Freeman’s work is that the measured pace of its methods doesn’t correspond with the speed of its effects. Though each composition is developed gradually, the paintings themselves are perpetual-motion machines. They shake and shimmy, herk and jerk. They’re all elbows, knees and jutting, propulsive rhythms. A Freeman painting will fold over and double back, like a piece of origami that continuously reinvents itself to the soundtrack of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

The constant in Ms. Freeman’s vocabulary of form is a wedge that has been wrested into shape from the space surrounding it. It can be triangular, circular, rectangular or, as is often the case, an amalgam of the lot that she cobbles together. These wedges are distributed evenly across the canvas, packed and stacked. Each edge of the canvas is a sounding board off of which the shapes bounce. There isn’t a square inch that isn’t accounted for and energized.

Ms. Freeman loves the regularity of the grid that serves as the structural underpinning for her work—but she loves even more to call that regularity into question. What makes these steadfastly ordered pictures dance is their abrupt elisions of space, shape and rhythm. Even after you’ve become accustomed to the topsy-turvy juxtapositions of a particular painting, it continues to surprise. Ms. Freeman pulls off a hard feat: sustaining a rambunctious, bopping esprit.

A clear and grateful debt to high modernist abstraction is evident. The paintings are inconceivable without the examples furnished by Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Bart van der Leck and, closer to our own time, Ellsworth Kelly and Burgoyne Diller. A visitor to the gallery remarked upon the affinities Ms. Freeman’s art shares with quilt-making. I’d add that certain elements of vintage popular design—the bright and slightly synthetic palette, in particular—supply an undercurrent of campy good humor to the paintings.

Gathering together inspirational resources, Ms. Freeman stitches them into a distinctly personal vision. Her notion of forward momentum is to honor precedent even as she leapfrogs over it. Would that all the paintings did so with as much resilience and confidence as Purple Galaxie (2004) and the irresistible Orange Duster (2003). That doesn’t mean the rest of the pictures, replete as they are with good tidings, aren’t worth looking at. That even the lesser achievements merit your time indicates the value of Ms. Freeman’s unhurried efforts.

Joanne Freeman: Recent Work is at Lohin Geduld Gallery, 531 West 25th Street, until Dec. 24.

Stay on the Grass

On a recent morning, during the unseasonably warm weather a few weeks back, I took a moment to sit on a bench in Madison Square Park, sip a cup of coffee and read the paper. I chose a place by the playground at the north end of the park so as to avoid contact with Sol LeWitt’s concrete-block sculptures—those Minimalist insults visited upon the public sphere by Mr. LeWitt and invited by the park’s conservancy. But then an array of monolithic sculptures inhabiting the grassy areas toward the upper reaches of the park caught my eye. I got up to investigate and discovered that the unassuming objects are the work of Jene Highstein.

It’s rare for public sculpture to acknowledge the world around it. Most of the time, it’s plunked into an empty plaza or patch of greenery at the behest of some well-meaning organization. Given that most artists can’t be bothered with “other people” (to borrow a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre), the majority of public-art projects—when they’re not impeding pedestrian traffic—are superfluous at best. Not so for Mr. Highstein. He had the presence of mind to key into the underlying rationale for public parks: the serenity that only nature, however manufactured and manicured, can provide.

The delicacy with which Mr. Highstein has arranged the sculptures recalls the respect that Asian cultures—and here I think especially of the Chinese—accord to the natural world. The pieces don’t intrude on their surroundings; they partake of them. As a consequence, they seem as inevitable a fixture of the landscaping as trees, grass and squirrels. The choice of organic materials—red cedar, granite, quartzite—helps. So do the natural forces Mr. Highstein references: A series of upended cone-like structures are dubbed “tornados.”

The shapes are elemental and simple, but stately. Even the jokier pieces work—the primordial crotch-shot of Female Figure (1991) or the totemic cedar staircase that leads both upward and nowhere. They suggest artistic and perhaps spiritual sympathies with cultures closer to the land than the typical New Yorker. How well Mr. Highstein’s sculptures will fare against the bitter cold remains to be seen. My guess is that they’ll handle it with the same stoic regard with which they met the falling leaves.

Madison Square Art: Jene Highstein is at Madison Square Park, Broadway and 23rd Street, until April 2006.

Patience and Care Engender  Paintings in Perpetual Motion