Recent trends have painters expanding off the canvas, out into dimensional space; the space of sculpture. There is an embedded tension in this expansion – the arena of painting, that great domain of symbolism and illusion, becomes mired in the physicality of the real. In The Shoulder and the Bow, April Street traverses between the symbolic language of painting and the real space that sculpture embodies. The artist presents eight small works that hang politely around the gallery, yet while they register within the formal language of painting, Street’s process is a much more physical one. Through press materials and interviews, we learn that Street’s paintings begin with a private act of wrapping her body in swathes of fabric, and then choreographing herself dipping into various pools of paint. This act performed for no one is an elaborate way to embed colour into fibre. By swaddling her own body in the materials she uses, Street develops a haptic knowledge, while creating a stored energy in the fabric used.
This body of work utilises hosiery fabric, which Street wrestles and cajoles, stuffing her material in places, to create an interlacing surface whose wrinkles and knots become major compositional players. In some works, such as Woman with blue flowers (2016), the materiality of the hosiery-cum-canvas is so confused that the eye delights in following its tunnelling path as it inverts and crumples around itself – its organic trail suggesting a dancerly movement. In one section, a pale yellow tubular form is speckled with purple dye as it plummets diagonally across the canvas, only to be enveloped into a pink and yellow heartlike form. The work evokes fashion as much as sensual gestures.
These paintings are at their best when they revel in abstraction, allowing the energy that Street imbues within the material be a partner in dictating the composition and form. In A knight’s tale with pink vase (2017), layers of sculptural fabric and paint swirl around each other, dramatically shifting from bright fuchsias to deep blues. In Fall to earth (2017), the colours of the applied paint spill into each other like an oil slick on a wet roadway.
Yet elsewhere, in works such as An arrangement with apple and bird (2017), the references to still life and its accompanying traits are far more straightforward: horizon line on the bottom third of the canvas implying a table; items arranged on top; background looming behind. Here, Street’s low-relief objects protrude in a conventional fashion: an apple shape is clearly defined and bursts forth from the canvas. One feels as though the objects should be read, rather than felt. The composition and dimensionality in these works illustrate rather than evoke through their form. This sudden jolt into representation feels wonky and forced. The paintings across this exhibition are at their best when the artist relinquishes a certain amount of control over the material, allowing their spatiality and twisting forms to find themselves. By contrast, the instances where the artist managed her material too heavily, in order to create recognisable objects and shapes, pull the viewer out of the elaborate bodily fantasy laid before her.
April Street: The Shoulder and the Bow at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 20 January – 3 March
From the April 2018 issue of ArtReview