The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

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MAY 2019 Issue

Zoe Avery Nelson: The Measure of a Boi

Flesh painted with the same open-minded creativity of palette as Renoir or Degas

Zoe Avery Nelson, <em>Elegy for Z</em>, 2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Rubber Factory, New York.
Zoe Avery Nelson, Elegy for Z, 2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Rubber Factory, New York.
On view
Rubber Factory
March 20 – May 12
New York

Running throughout this exhibition of nine canvases, the overwhelming vehicle of anatomical ambiguity, is the direction and intensity of the brushstroke, the modulation of tint and hue, and the inscription of a few well-placed lines—in other words—the handling of the paint (as opposed to narrative elements). The painter, Zoe Avery Nelson, presents a glossary of equivocal forms and plays on the visual interchangeability of joints, folds, seams, and protuberances of the human body. An armpit can be a knee; a circle with an inscribed line or dot can be a breast, an eye, or a fold in the flesh. Cartoonish fingers and toes have recognizable nails, but they snake in and out at odd angles, becoming surrogates for all sorts of other body processes. But beyond these drawn ciphers, the canvases flicker with alternating complementary colors and swatches of marks moving in unison, which delineate rippling muscle groups and smooth fields of skin. What is wonderful about Nelson’s aesthetic is that it relegates the viewer’s question to a very literal “what am I looking at” and never the question “who?” We ponder whether we are seeing a breast or an eyeball; one of Nelson’s favorite forms is a roundish object with a protuberance—never quite explained—or in other cases we wonder if we’re looking at a knee, an elbow, or a shoulder.

Zoe Avery Nelson, The Measure of a Boy, 2019. Oil on canvas, 48 x 42 inches. Courtesy Rubber Factory, New York.

Canvases such as I Dance, Avery, and Counterpoint (all 2019) depict arms, legs, and torsos twisting and undulating in a ludic bacchanal that seems drawn from a flash-obsessed mannerist like Goltzius or Grünewald, but the artist’s application of paint is decidedly impressionist. Nelson approaches flesh with the same open-minded creativity of palette as Renoir or Degas, employing intense counter-intuitive concentrated color laid down in clear articulated strokes. This results in fields of rippling skin as in this is how we (you) do it (2019), which at times coalesce into effulgent bulges of scarlet and pink and then melt into troughs of burnt umber and ochre. Not everything is smooth. Nelson allows line, but mostly to obfuscate; tracing details, some which are familiar but others are pleasingly fluid. Amusingly there are carefully depicted Converse sneakers and tight shorts—giving the viewer an excess of auxiliary detail emphasizing the dance and club subtext of the paintings while keeping the central plot inscrutable. In two of the paintings, The Measure of a Boy (2018) and Backed Up (2019), the artist introduces shelf-like rectilinear structures. In Backed Up, this matrix contains an organ-like object resting in a box in the foreground. Its convoluted surface could be a heart or a brain; waxing sentimental then waning precise. In The Measure of a Boy, hard-edge forms dangle from the shelves and precise lines penetrate flat planes, generating a diagrammatic interlinear translation of the softer and vaguer background interactions of the human forms. It isn’t altogether clear that we need these mechanical cues.

Zoe Avery Nelson, this is how we (you) do it, 2019. Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Rubber Factory, New York.

Ultimately the small and succinct paintings are more effective. It may simply be that three of them—Elegy for Z, this is how we (you) do it, and 132 BPM (all 2019)—engage with the face as well as the body, and this ambitious gesture towards portraiture opens up many more opportunities to play with the ambiguity that Nelson is pursuing. Fingers mimic noses and transform into ears in Elegy for Z, while eyes on either side of this is how we (you) do it oscillate between gazing furtively out at the viewer, and then receding into becoming two nipples defining either side of a thorax. Nelson deftly uses the texture of the brushstroke and color shifts from warm to cold to hot, to disorient the viewer—sharing the Johns-ian (Jasper) obsession with visual games and optical illusion. What Nelson is painting, the definition, or the impossibility of defining an identification, is immensely well served by the alternation between the sensual and the diagrammatic simply played out in terms of the body.


William Corwin

is a sculptor and journalist from New York. He has exhibited at The Clocktower, LaMama and Geary galleries in New York, as well as galleries in London, Hamburg, Beijing and Taipei. He has written regularly for The Brooklyn Rail, Artpapers, Bomb, Artcritical, Raintaxi and Canvas and formerly for Frieze. Most recently he curated and wrote the catalog for Postwar Women at The Art Students League in New York, an exhibition of the school’s alumnae active between 1945-65, and 9th Street Club, and exhibition of Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Mercedes Matter, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner and Elaine Dekooning at Gazelli Art House in Mayfair. He is the editor of Formalism; Collected Essays of Saul Ostrow, to be published in 2020, and he will participate in the exhibition Anchor/Roots at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in 2021.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

All Issues