Nancy Mitchnick: “Uncalibrated” @ MOCAD

Install NM MOCAD 2016

Nancy Mitchnick, Installation at MOCAD, 2016 – Courtesy of MOCAD

Nancy Mitchnick has had a spate of exhibitions this past year. She had a great show at Hamtramck’s Public Pool, showed a few earlier works in a cool three-man exhibit at the iconic Detroit gallery, Alley Culture, and really opened some eyes with new paintings at Wasserman Project. The exhibitions signify a return to and embrace of her hometown after she escaped from the Cass Corridor art community in 1973, and lived and worked as a painting professor and artist for years in New York (Bard College), California (CalArts), and Massachusetts (Harvard). She was also honored as a Kresge Fellow in 2015, and most recently was selected by the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters as a recipient of the organization’s 2016 art awards. Quite a homecoming!

The most recent iteration of her work is in the big room of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The huge gallery of MOCAD seems like it was made for Mitchnick and she comfortably fills the space with what at first seems a most curious selection of paintings—ranging from two portraits of a friend and three portraits from her “Wonder Women” series, to a work in progress recovered from what she herself calls a “bad” painting (about which she recently lectured at MOCAD), a couple of expressionistic still lifes, two landscapes and nine houses from her old neighborhood, and two new “narrative paintings.” In a sense the show constitutes a mini-retrospective of the range of Mitchnick’s work over the past thirty years—portraiture, still life, landscape—and two new, auspicious paintings that signify a leap into her future. But much more poignantly, “Uncalibrated” (the title of the exhibition) seems to explore Mitchnick’s quest over the years to mine the vast rhizoid root system of painting, to find out what being an artist is and what it can do, and what it will come to be. (In mock despair she exclaimed, “Sometime my studio looks like a group show.”) “Uncalibrated” is fundamentally a self-portrait, or perhaps a memoir, of Mitchnick as painter.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Oil Painting 48 x 48, “Virginia Woolf”, 1990-91        All following Images Courtesy of Glen Mannisto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the entrance of MOCAD are three early portraits, from the Wonder Women series, of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and Frida Kahlo. Painted in grisaille-like, gray shades that produce a classical sculptural effect, the heads of these three great, prototypical, feminist artists have a heroic scale and echo both Renaissance sculpture and certainly Enlightenment ideals. That they are outside of the main gallery, at the entrance, provides a hint of what part these heroic women might play in Mitchnick’s life as a painter. All three were experimental, independent, rational and investigative, secular beings and certainly, like Mitchnick, lived large lives. They also suggest a classical meta-literacy—to challenge the status quo, to invent, hybridize, psychoanalyze, to utilize—that is certainly part of Mitchnick’s own strategy as an artist. In her conversation with Jens Hoffmann,
 MOCAD’S Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large, she admits to being a voracious reader, which somehow parallels and infiltrates her work as an artist.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Eye Detail, Oil Painting, 1992 -” Davy Butler First Hit”

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Nancy Mitchnick, Detail of Eye Painting, 36 x 36 “Davy Butler  Finished” – 1992

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her two portraits of a friend and patron, “Davy Butler: First Hit,” and “Davy Butler: Finished,” are elegant illustrations of Mitchnick’s carpentry skills in building these paintings, readily apparent throughout all of her work since. (“My father was a cabinet maker, but sometimes had to frame houses to make money.”) In “First Hit,” eyebrows and eyes are a dozen or so quick brush strokes—they are elegant and deft, making a sketchy, speculative architecture. “First Hit” is more mysteriously suggestive than descriptive, framing the first marks of the physiognomy of identity. Then in “Davy Butler: Finished,” the painting confidently assembles itself around the subject’s eyes. The head is smaller, more contained, and from each part of the facial landscape—the nose, the lips and mouth, and the eyebrows are precise—a commanding, almost Roman presence emerges. While making portraits to earn money, Mitchnick disavows a preoccupation with likeness, with making a painting that looks like the subject: “”Making likeness is not good painting, I’m making great paintings.” Her process, she says, is “all trial and error,” sometimes “losing whole beautiful passages to erasure, to get it right, to make a good painting.” In an offhanded aside she adds, “you writers just keep a record in your computers of every version of what you do. I lost a beautiful turtle here,” she muses pointing to a spot on the recent painting “Night Heron.” However not surprisingly, “Davy Butler: Finished” (the portrait of the friend who attended her recent MOCAD conversation with Hoffman), is not only an extraordinarily articulate painting, but an ennobling likeness as well.

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Nancy Mitchnick, Two Portraits, “Davy Butler First Hit” , “Davy Butler Finished “, 1992, both 36 x 36

 

The heroic scale that she is given to (“I didn’t realize at first that I was a heroic scale painter”), necessitates a physicality and energy apparent in most of these recent works (as well as in her person). Fortunately disregarding all of the foreboding claptrap about “Ruin Porn,” Mitchnick took scores of photos of her old neighborhood near and around Hamtramck and began working from them during her first return to Detroit after losing her Harvard position to a “Conceptual artist.” (“I wanted to do something with Detroit.”)

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Nancy Mitchnick, “First House”, 34 x 45 Oil Painting, 2006

The centerpieces then of “Uncalibrated” are the nine flat, elevation portraits of Detroit houses in various states of devolution. Depicting mostly the homes of working class people and perhaps middle-class families who ran small businesses or auto industry management, these are not memorials nor documentation of the state of derelict Detroit, but exquisite paintings that celebrate a presence of people who built and inhabited this place. Even the smallest painting, “First House,” exudes a very particular ethos and an aesthetic filled with a humanizing spirit.

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Nancy Mitchnick, “Torn Orange”, Oil Painting, 59 x 99, 2009

In reminiscing about her Cass Corridor days, Mitchnick talked about wanting to be an abstract painter but was never able to escape narratives but perhaps, ironically, that has finally (almost) been achieved in two of the most monumental paintings in the exhibit. “Torn Orange” is the painting of a surgically exposed side of a store. Composed of modulated tones of orange colliding with a diagonal green and yellow slash, it features the typical markings of a classic abstract expressionist work, but Mitchnick keeps the context of the building by depicting the surrounding light and air of the city. “Big Burn” is a triumphant exploration of the remains of a home that, in its abandoned state, is slowly rotting and returning to the earth. Exposed rafters, plaster lath and crumbling foundation are astonishingly caressed into a derelict geometry that made Mitchnick blurt, “I felt like I was composing a symphony!” It is triumphant painting that in itself is a marvelous history lesson.

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Nancy Mitchnick,” Big Burn”, Oil Painting, 129 x 59, 2006-20016

Each of the house paintings has a complexly charged presence. “Buffalo Street” is of the house in which Mitchnick grew up, and while it was in its last stages of devolution, Mitchnick’s painting still captures what seems a classical bearing, with its gabled roof and three-windowed dormer still erect and proud, and still evincing the colors that it once wore. It is difficult to imagine Mitchnick’s mindset when revisiting and painting this moment of her life and prompts the question of whether this is an elegy for the Buffalo Street house or an objective portrait.

 

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Nancy Mitchnick, “Buffalo Street”, Oil Painting, 99 x 88, 2008-09

One of the most interesting aspects of Mitchnick’s work is the lesson that she teaches with each composition, which is that it takes a long look to realize a painting. Her latest pieces, “Night Heron” and “White Front,” seem almost recklessly whimsical compared to the disciplined, graphic painting of the abandoned houses. Populated with strange bits of ocean coral, odd mythic creatures (snakes, birds, turtles), and a Persian Princess, they are a gargantuan leap into another mind space. However, after one spends time with them, they gain traction, and their amazing palette of colors (throughout “Uncalibrated” her palette is symphonic) begins to tantalize, and an almost fairytale narrative gathers. It might be the story of a new Hamtramck or not, but it certainly signifies another trajectory for Nancy Mitchnick’s painting to mine.

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Nancy Mitchnick,”Night Heron”, Oil Painting 77 x 111 – 2016

 

“Uncalibrated” will be at MOCAD until Sunday, July 31, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaina Kasztelan @ Hatch Gallery

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Double Rainbow: Way up high with Shaina Kasztelan

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Shaina Kasztelan – Central installation, All Images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

One of the most challenging aspects of grappling with mental illness is not just the negotiation of an emotionally fraught psychic territory, but the social pressure to conceal whatever struggles may be happening internally. For women, especially young women, this struggle is a subset of the prevailing demand to present a shiny, positive face to the world. In Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Double Rainbow, at HATCH Art in Hamtramck through May 28th, artist Shaina Kasztelan effectively reveals the turbulent and colorful interior life of a young Millennial woman. This, her first solo outing, is an installation-heavy environment that immediately draws the viewer into a kind of psychedelic and intensely female headspace, via a chaotic accumulation of material culture that targets her as a consumer.

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Shaina Kasztelan “The Devil’s Vibrating Smile,” (2016), 46″x46″

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These materials include, but are not limited to: stickers, small toys, fake fur, plastics in innumerable iterations, decorative cake toppers, beads and cheap jewelry, a blow-mold nativity trio, fake fur, craft paper, artificial hair, and a series of pool floaties. Hearts! Rainbows! Unicorns! Kasztelan has plumbed the depths of the party-variety store in her search, and leaves no corner of her installation space unoccupied. One has a sense of stepping into a riot of Attention Deficit Disorder and teenage misanthropy, rife with cultural references that might be enigmatic to some, but readily identifiable to anyone within Kasztelan’s demographic. The nativity scene sports Insane Clown Posse face make-up; a cross-stitch bears an iconically self-pitying Nine Inch Nails lyrics; everywhere we encounter pop culture figures, from Mickey Mouse to the murderer from Scream, to the ubiquitous “Have A Nice Day” smiley face, in various interpretations. This is an interesting interplay between the objects Kasztelan has bought ready-made and incorporated into her texture- and color-rich compositions, and those that she assembles from scratch using craft materials; why bother to meticulously assemble a Mickey Mouse face from perler beads, when there are literally thousands of commercially made objects bearing the same visage?

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Shaina Kasztelan – Details from the central installation

This speaks to a kind of obsession, which is echoed in the endless repetition of shapes—often small toys that can be bought in bulk for a few pennies each. In “Baby Cactus is Happy,” a cactus shape covered in rainbow hair and wearing a pink inflatable wig bears dozens of tiny variety store plastic babies, the mere existence of which is slightly confounding. Indeed, when you start to zero in on any of Kasztelan’s works, the preponderance of oddly useless objects generated by our culture and marketed in the direction of young women begins to become unnerving. What message does it send, to be continually surrounded by things that are colorful, basic, and functionless. Kasztelan seems to have compensated for this material invasion of her head by creating an imaginary life for these objects, reimagining them into creatures, friends, and demons—golems of hyper-femininity—often by means of craft projects, another highly feminized activity set. As each creature takes shape, so it reflects some aspect of young womanhood, dark or light. “I Scream, You Scream, We All Throw Up,” is a tower of plastic spray foam, fused into a kind of totem pole with spray foam, and topped with a fright mask that is the most recognizable symbol from the “Scream” movie franchise. The mask is vomiting spray foam in lurid colors down the length of the totem pole, and this violent mixture of hoarding candy, binging, and purging, very successfully blurs the innocence of a child’s Halloween activity with the body image pressure applied to young girls as they emerge into puberty, and the resulting host of horrific eating disorders that are a scourge against this demographic.

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Shaina Kasztelan – Two works on paper 12 X 20″

Though presented in the trappings of frivolous girlhood, Kasztelan’s materials are a Trojan Horse for extremely intense concepts about sexuality, drug use, and mental wellness. Technically, each piece is incredibly rich in detail, seamlessly constructed (even in the event that drippy spray foam is being used as an adhesive, there is an intentionality and conscious hand at work) and remarkably successful at balancing literally hundreds of objects into well-balanced compositions. As a first solo outing, Kasztelan’s work already presents a strong self-awareness and adroit leveraging of a personal perspective that is often marginalized—that of the young woman, struggling to process a world full of expectations and distractions, and perhaps prone, in this struggle, to medicate some of the confusion into imaginary friendships. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a Double Rainbow is a wild journey that brings home a surprisingly deep message.

Lois Teicher @ Robert Kidd Gallery

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Lois Teicher, Cosmic Journey #3 (Red) welded aluminum with acrylic 35 x 23-1/2 x 6-3/4 inches Cosmic Journey #1 (Black) welded aluminum with enamel 37 x 23 x 9 inches

The Robert Kidd Gallery, in Birmingham, Michigan opened an exhibition of sculpture by the artist Lois Teicher on May 21, 2016. These hand-welded shapes of metal with spray painted surfaces rely heavily on her use of space and form. Working in a minimalist tradition, Teicher brings a high level of technical accomplishment to these abstract works. These sometimes folded pieces of colorful metal are hard-fought ideas that use pure geometric forms that give the viewer a certain type of comfort that is easy on the eyes. It brings to mind a piece of Teicher’s work outside in a lush organic and natural setting where there is an extreme contrast presented.

 

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Lois Teicher, Fragment – welded aluminum with enamel 43 x 43 x 22 inches

The conceptual idea presented in Teicher’s work reminds this writer of work by Robert Mangold and Ellsworth Kelly. Searching for the roots of the minimalist tradition in a broad sense, these geometric abstractions are easily associated with the Bauhaus School in the work of Yves Klein, Piet Mondrian, and Joseph Albers. Some might suggests the movement was a reaction to abstract expressionism, but I would argue it is more of an inner-sensibility that drives this work; that there is an internal intellectual idea that says these forms are part of what creates the space/time continuum in the universe.

 

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Lois Teicher, Curved Form with Triangle and Space III – welded aluminum with acrylic and enamel 36 x 23 x 18 inches

It’s taken this writer a trip to Donald Judd’s Marfa, Texas, and Dia: Beacon up the Hudson River from New York City, to contemplate and digest minimalist concepts. The recent passing of artist Ellsworth Kelly in December 2015 bring to mind a kindred spirit with Ms. Teicher, who completed her graduate work in 1981. She says in her statement, “My studio work is generally constructed of hand-welded metal that I personally fabricate. The process of expressing ideas mostly germinates from a solitary inner experience the flows outward and takes the form of visual expression.”

 

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Lois Teicher, Eclipse Series VI – welded aluminum with acrylic 52 x 52 x 14 inches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The work on the floor and the wall sings a similar minimalist note, but Ms. Teicher takes her own step when she makes the form fold. What needs to be said is the role scale plays in this work. Some of the work in this exhibition seems like scale models for larger work that would be placed in public spaces. Given the space afforded by galleries, it’s these models that often stand alone as works of art in search of a public space. There is a natural balance in Teicher’s pieces with a Zen-like simplicity that informs each piece of work with a high caliber of visual experience.

Continuum, May 21 – June 18, 2016  Robert Kidd Gallery, Birmingham, MI

 

“Pictures of You” @ David Klein Gallery

Five painters take on reality in Group Exhibition

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Trevor Young, “Beach Town” 2013, Jamie Adams, “Bride Falls, Pink Pants, Soggy Socks” 2016

 

“Realism gets a bad rap,” says Christine Schefman, Director of Contemporary Art for David Klein Gallery, and helmswoman of the new downtown Detroit location. The latest show to open at David Klein is Pictures of You, which features five painters, each of whom employs realism in some capacity in his renderings—and each of whom makes a pretty good case for its enduring relevance in a time where painting is no longer the leading technology for capturing reality.

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Stephen Magsig, “National Theater” – 2014

The show is divided between a focus on human versus architectural subjects—and within each subject type, further divided between attempts at photo-realism versus the taking of impressionistic liberties. Within the architectural realm, artist Stephen Magsig holds down the stricter side of realism, with austere landscapes that seem, for all their industrial details, to be fundamentally about capturing light where it strikes and fades from surfaces. The works on display are larger than his exceedingly charming ongoing series, “Postcards from Detroit,” which capture this same basic subject matter at a handheld scale. While the postcard series is a bit looser, Magsig’s larger works are precise and focused—perfectly capturing, but perhaps more potentially outstanding when viewed outside the context of, the city from which he draws so much inspiration.

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Trevor Young, “Ellipse” 20 X 16, 2016

Occupying the more impressionistic end of the architectural spectrum is Trevor Young, whose works on display include fuzzy nightscapes that evoke the dark, patchwork quilt-like city lighting grid from a bird’s-eye perspective, and nighttime tableaus of empty gas stations, their diffuse fluorescent lighting creating washes of quiet menace. These images, though outwardly stolid, nonetheless contain a kind of radiant energy; one can practically hear the buzz of lighting, the sharp intake of breath before some kind of hell breaks loose.

 

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Robert Schefman, “Wonderland” 84 X 72 – 2016

Fighting on the side of humanity, Robert Schefman’s works seem to hew more closely to photo-realism, with a painter’s natural fetishism around capturing light sources and shadow, and perhaps a more personal kind of fetishism at play in a set of works dealing with characters and scenarios lifted from the “Clue” board game. Mrs. Green, kissed by afternoon light, gazes pensively out a window; Mr. Green is crumpled mostly out of the frame at her feet, amid a tangle of rope (he appears in a separate canvas). The eye-grabbing large-scale work that hangs at main gallery center depicts two young women in the process of sorting through boxes of records at what seems to be a twilight listening party in a driveway. Though his narratives are somewhat dreamy or disturbing, the details are sharp; by contrast, the large-scale oils on linen by Jamie Adams  seem torn from vivid fantasy. Evoking classic mythical painting, but with updated clothing, and luridly modern colors, Adams’ subjects stand apart from a readily identifiable location in reality. They seem like Greek gods, engaged in floating orgies, adrift in carnal encounters, highly figurative, but like nothing of this world.

 

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Andrew Krieger, “Campground Daredevil” – 2015

Bridging all of these works are the poignant and beautiful contributions by Detroit painter Andrew Krieger . Though clearly figurative, Krieger’s works evoke a kind of non-idealized nostalgia—more Richard Linklater than Norman Rockwell. The movement and depth created in his images—which feel unmistakably specific, seemingly torn from the raw source of memory—is enhanced by his architectural canvases. Unable to be confined to a flat picture plane, Krieger’s images literally buck, curve, and protrude into three-dimensional space. Subjects are often floating—boys jumping their bikes, a girl tumbling midair on a trampoline, a child tossed by his father poised at the apex of a cannonball into a swimming pool—their shadows casting into backgrounds that contain a wealth of funny and specific details (one bike jump is being executed, we realize, off a piece of plywood being supported from underneath by another child). Krieger is masterful with his perspectives and angles, and renders his memories in palettes that move them backwards in time. Tones are generally muted, only to be punctuated by bright blues—the sparkle on electric blue swimming pool, hot blue summer sky, vivid blue jeans on a neighborhood kid in the background.

If realism is the mode at hand, one has to wonder, what reality is being revealed? Though the show is titled Pictures of You, it seems clear that what emerges, more than an objective version of reality, is a detailed and highly subjective portrait of the mind of each of these painters. On display are the pictures indexed within the consciousness of their makers; in the end, it makes a picture of them. Which, if any, of these approaches speaks to you probably says a great deal about the snapshots you carry in your own mental wallet.

Simone DeSousa @ Holding House

Architecture of the Soul in a Serendipitous Space

Holding House, an art/work space two years in the making that began engaging with art and community in Southwest Detroit in 2013, has been fashioned, roots up, from a gutted storefront (shuttered in 1978 and not re-inhabited until co-directors Andrea Eckert and Adrienne Dunkerley took it on) into a magnificent, light-filled space that still retains choice features of its former identity. Its roomy, raw-edged gallery is the absolute perfect setting for Simone DeSousa’s new solo exhibition, “Calculating with Absence.”

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Simone DeSousa, Installation image, “Calculating with Absence (The Jewel in the Lake)” Wall Acrylic on Panel, 2016 Images – Courtesy of Clara DeGalan, Simone DeSousa, and Eric Wheeler

 “Calculating with Absence” is installed, and should be viewed, from the roots up. The denser, slightly older works installed in Holding House’s lower level comprise a sort of prima materia which bursts, on the gallery’s main floor, into a constellation of airier, more succinct works that take the viewer on a meditative journey through space, silence, and the evocative, multivalent power of the gesture which stands alone.

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Simone DeSousa, “Calculating with Absence (The Temple of Bliss and Emptiness 1 and 2)”, Acrylic on Panel, 2016

DeSousa’s early career in architecture is evident in her work- abstract and sharply minimal as it can be, it speaks in the silent, echoing language of space. The more built-up works read like cityscapes, layers of geometric forms and linear gestures crowding the picture plane, built up with industrial surface texture- swirls of resin and caulk. Some of those same textures appear in the quieter works, where they are accompanied by the barest of architectural scribbles, or simply given an unconventional format for a setting- DeSousa’s panels bend, nick off at corners, elongate, and spread along the gallery walls more like evolving visual conversations than self-enclosed paintings.

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Simone DeSousa,“Calculating with Absence (The Secret Path)” Wall , Acrylic on Panel, 2016

“Calculating with Absence (The Secret Path)” Wall

The power of the gesture is uniquely engaged in this format. As immediate as the forms in these paintings feel, their surroundings are carefully considered and have great bearing on how each gesture reads, and moves out into its surrounding space. The cohabitation of DeSousa’s textural swaths with delicate architectural elements suggest both massive scale and confusing layers of space.

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Simone DeSousa, “Calculating with Absence (Base, Path, and Fruit)”, Acrylic on Panel, 2016

Seen as forms within pictures, the gestures rupture the quiet recession of space suggested by the drawing, like a sudden realization can rupture a settled sense of reality- conversely, seen in the context of the gallery space, the gestures project from their oddly shaped receptacles to create visual rhymes and dialogs with the surrounding architecture itself. Here is the serendipity of the show’s setting- the exposed beams and raw, plastered edges of Holding House’s interior draws DeSousa’s one-shot gestures out of their pictorial settings, and sets in motion a parallel, but separate dialog with actual space, fostered by the ever-finessing nontraditional formats on which she works. In “Calculating with Absence,” DeSousa has accomplished something very special and rare- two dimensional works that simultaneously dialog with, about, and into three dimensional space while maintaining their own autonomy as beautiful, sharply composed paintings. As a long-time fan of her curatorial prowess at Simone DeSousa Gallery (formerly Re:View Contemporary) in Midtown, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that DeSousa brings as much clarity and power of vision to her studio practice. I sincerely hope we get to see more of this side of DeSousa’s practice in the future.

“Calculating with Absence” is on display at Holding House through June 10, 2016.