Elizabeth Neel

Monica De Cardenas Galleria, Milan 

15 September – 14 November

Review from ArtReview, Issue 37, December 2009

Elizabeth Neel uses gestural brushwork reminiscent of early-1950s New York actionpainting: violent and energetic mark-making, on a variety of surfaces, ranging fromthickly plopped-on and opaque paint to thin transparent washes. In the 14 large andmedium canvases and works on paper that comprise the Brooklyn painter’s first soloshow in Milan, she approaches the history of painting knowingly, through a techniquethat teeters between abstraction and figuration. Or to put it another way, in order to paintfiguratively she seems to have allowed herself to see and paint abstractly, or vice versa.In so doing, Neel manages to achieve clarity through swirling forms, colour and revealingimages that are sometimes culled from the Internet. This is the case with Sideshow(2008). In this large-scale canvas, the artist creates a remarkable tension by leaving thefour corners of the painting white; this determines that the action takes place in thecentre, where after travelling around broad, circular brushstrokes, one’s eye ends upresting cautiously on a fishlike form.

On a curious biographical note, the painter is Alice Neel’s granddaughter – thoughpossibly Cecily Brown would be a more pertinent artist to mention when criticallyconsidering Elizabeth Neel’s painting. Brown certainly paved the way for artists born inthe mid-to-late 1970s who chose to take up the violent brushstrokes connected to actionpainting’s macho past. Neel escapes Brown’s shadow, however, by avoiding thoseexplicit depictions of sex that made the British artist famous and allowing for morebreathing room by not filling her pictures with unnecessary paint. So one is able to makeassociations with sexuality in a work like Love Canal (2009), but may in additionconsider how the themes of sex, love, beauty and mortality are approached differentlythrough the floral motifs present in a number of other works in the show, all of whichevoke the affecting tradition of vanitas painting.

Most of these smaller-scale vanitas works play with a figure–ground relationship whereinthe floral theme emerges from liquid paint. A larger version, titled American Standard(2009), is nevertheless the strongest of the series. The image resembles a still life, a floralbouquet executed with strong blacks complemented by pinks, greens and turquoise. Thepainting’s title, in combination with the still-life theme, could reference any number ofthings, but gives the impression of ironically playing on the idea of normal, garden-variety abstraction or even provincial local-gallery floral favourites. Neel, though, is noSunday painter, and with this exhibition she succeeds in convincing one that emotionalsincerity is still worth exploring through the sumptuousness of paint.