Israeli artist Maya Bloch’s “hello stranger,” at Thierry Goldberg Projects, is her second solo show in New York. (The first, which you can infer was a success, was at the same gallery six months ago.) Ms. Bloch paints figures formed from drifting waves of clashing, nightmarish color. They look like burning photographs, lifted out of time, but also like accidental convergences on the surface of a shimmering film of gasoline. Some of the figures have smoky halos. Some of the paintings have extra snippets of painted canvas fixed on top, as a kind of double collage. The paint is mostly acrylic, but some of the faces are made of thickly cracked oil, and you realize that it isn’t the images but the people who are burning.
In the group portraits, her figures crowd close together with eyes front. Sometimes they stand in front of suddenly veering, silver-gray stripes, which could be the stripes of a death camp uniform or, exhibited in New York, an ominous rainstorm reflected in the stainless-steel lines of the World Trade Center. When they don’t have stripes, they have blank, purplish-gray storms.
Two individual portraits leap out. In one, a slender beauty with her legs crossed and one elbow on her knee looks down modestly, revealing a coif of burning paint, with sinuous lines of red trailing through white and a funnel of smoky black in front. Her face, paper white on the chin, gray around the lips and stained soot-black across the eyes, is damaged and beautiful. It’s the damage that makes the beauty, but it’s still distinctly damage. In another, a hulking, bluish-white toddler, with hair colored like Pippi Longstocking’s, sits on the ground, melting away into black. Purple lines divide her chubby arms from her chest. Her bleak, simple eyes look out with resigned pain.
These suffering eyes are at once the strength and the weak point of “hello stranger.” The implication that there can be, within accidental shapes of smoke, or bodies about to be destroyed, or any hazardous, contingent, impermanent human identity, such tortured self-awareness is what makes the paintings so affecting. And compositionally, it is the eyes that give the canvases their stillness and their weight. At the same time, there’s a very narrow area in which they can succeed: They must be sharper than the smoky bodies to stand out, but not so much sharper that they seem out of place, or make the cracked faces look like masks. It must be like painting through a keyhole. For the most part, Ms. Bloch can do it, but it makes you nervous to watch.
To make Large Spectrum Chart, which is both the highlight of “Slow Color” at Morgan Lehman and an important reference for its other pieces, Jaq Chartier began with a 40-inch-by-50-inch gessoed white panel. Using an eyedropper, she laid out 19 long rows of small vertical lines in a variety of stains. She covered the stains with spray-painted, horizontal bars in several shades of white. And then she laid over this deceptive whiteness a varnish whose interaction with the paint caused the stains to come blooming through.
The final effect is similar to the gel electrophoresis images used to analyze DNA. The resemblance is intentional: Ms. Chartier’s pictures, too, are full of information. She began using stains this way to test their archival stability, and the sides of Large Spectrum Chart are covered with handwritten notes about which colors are which and what they’re doing. But unlike with images of DNA, the beauty here is also intentional, and the gathering of information, at least as far as we’re concerned, is only a means to an end.