If you’ve been to any of Public Functionary’s recent shows, you’ve probably come to expect large-scale, immersive installations in their space. From Liz Miller’s floor-to-ceiling cut-paper curtains back in March to Aaron De La Cruz’s dense, graphic wallpaper in last month’s show, the gallery has consistently morphed into entirely different atmospheres from show to show. So it may come as some surprise to enter “Meridians,” Liza Sylvestre’s new solo exhibition, and find paintings hanging, simply enough, on clean white walls. The dark, masculine energy of the past few installations has given way to a much more spacious, feminine vibe, where a hint of light lilac color on the back wall and some central light fixtures are the only embellishments. It’s a smart choice, because it lets Sylvestre’s lush abstractions do all of the heavy lifting on their own.
“Meridians” showcases different iterations of a single body of work that took the artist more than a year to complete, and you’ll see where all that time went when you get up close to them. Each painting starts with random, intuitive splatters of bright, watery acrylic paint. Syvlestre then embellishes the composition with organic shapes made up of incredibly crisp, sinewy lines. These twisting, knotted forms weave in and out, in front of and behind the pools of color, never wavering and always consistent in their line weight. It’s a beautiful marriage of delicate expressionism and tight graphic art in which the hand-drawn forms twist and turn with the loose acrylic swirls like some bizarro musculature, tightly wound in one area but fraying off into individual tendrils in another. I can only imagine how many trashcans she filled with dead Microns putting this show together.
Liza Sylvestre, A Moon In My Mouth (detail), ink & acrylic, 48 x 36”
The subtlety and spaciousness of the installation actually makes a lot of sense with the paintings, which feature negative space prominently. Up until now, her work has mostly been throbbing cyclones of paint and ink contained entirely within the picture plane, surrounded by the white of her gessoed panels. One such example (and the oldest piece in the show), I Open And Close, is a gorgeous combination of coiling black line-work, thin ghostly wisps of translucent white paint, and green and blue clouds of pigment rising up with a kind of lazy violence. It’s like a Category 5 tornado viewed from miles away. Her new work gets us much closer to the action, with the lines and colors bleeding off the edges, but the white negative space is always there, like the emptiness within an atom. She agrees, laughing: “Yes, there’s a lot of space in space.”
Liza Sylvestre, I Open And Close, acrylic and ink, 48 x 36”
Despite poetic titles and non-representational subject matter, the paintings all seem very grounded in the physical world. Within the colors and lines you get the sense of puddles, leaves, feathers, muscles, hair, organs, rope, jellyfish, galaxies, cells. Syvlestre says she is “drawing on patterns that I see in the universe and in the world, from microscopic to macroscopic. But it’s also about the space and the relationship that happens between myself and the work as I’m creating it.” The effect is at once ethereal and biological, like looking at alien life on slides under a microscope.
The work is clearly very physical in its application, and it feels very personal, too, in part because of all the references to the body. During her childhood, Sylvestre lost her hearing, which she says “created a lot of room for me to be internal, and these works result from that.” But good work that is this abstracted, that relies almost entirely on color and form, really can’t help but be personal for both the artist and the viewer. We will all see something different in these paintings, be it faces, stormclouds, anemones, emotions, or even sounds, and that is really where the fun can be found in a show like this. Letting my eye wander through the shapes and forms, the marks both accidental and deliberate, I was reminded of everything from 19th century woodblock landscapes to Tetsuo’s grotesque transformation at the end of the anime classic Akira. Perhaps this helps explain the geographic reference in the show’s title: if you give this work your attention, you may be surprised where it takes you.
Liza Sylvestre, A Moon In My Mouth (detail), ink & acrylic, 48 x 36