Carmen Neely titled the eight paintings in her first New York solo show after phrases she had recently heard (“Just gotta caress it a little,” “Don’t just hope it!,” “A good fortune can ruin your life”), often in her own conversations. In some instances, she appended the phrases to the paintings mid-production, but in most she used them as points of departure. This use of dialogue from her own life lent the work an intimacy that could have fostered an impression of navel-gazing, particularly given the inward qualities already associated with gestural abstraction, her formal language of choice. Instead, the works are relatable and even openly invite viewers to project their own interpretations.
Neely, who received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro last year, demonstrates a facility with many types of marks, from obsessively reworked scratchy patches to wide-brushed circular sweeps to delicate contours to confident graffitilike zigzags, that evoke a host of art historical predecessors. Neely treats such gestures, however, in a manner all her own. After locating an especially compelling mark in one of her paintings, she duplicates it in different mediums, to varying degrees of fidelity. Some of these re-creations are hand-sculpted approximations she affixes near the original painted marks—as with the open diamond shape in pink polymer clay that echoes two smaller brown-painted versions in When sea creatures ask about you (2017). Others, such as the large black plexiglass squiggle at the same canvas’s lower edge, are the products of digital intervention: Neely uploaded images of her paintings into vector graphics software and then isolated and altered marks or simply redrew them freehand on-screen before having the files sent to be laser-cut in plexiglass for use in other paintings. Such processes of proliferation yield “gestures” that are images (and abstractions) of prior marks, divesting those marks of their specificity and historical role as conduits for self-expression. Because Neely is a female artist of color, her recoding of the expressionist gesture seems all the more consequential, given the overwhelming number of white male artists occupying the canon.
While Neely’s painted marks might generate components for other paintings, they might also spawn stand-alone sculptures, such as the seven small-scale resin objects elevated to varying heights by thin aluminum rods in The Choir (2017). Visually resonant with (though not necessarily direct re-creations of) details in the paintings, these polychrome pieces read as characters in some droll tale, with the gallery as their stage. Larger versions lurked in gallery corners or behind columns. Neely bends abstraction into a means of storytelling, even providing, in three lithographs and a watercolor, illustrations of her abstract figures’ antics. In Tina and Murphey Daydream: Two (2017), for example, a watermelon-pink pyramid (Tina) hovers among a commotion of would-be pals rendered in a style equal parts John Altoon and Dr. Seuss. But one senses that these scenes—and indeed Neely’s imagery throughout—offer not fixed narratives but loose scenarios that invite us to imagine other ways their components can be combined. Certain collaged elements indicate an openness to external information: pieces of rose-tinted mirrored plexiglass in various paintings reflect the viewer, while the telephone cord suspended from the bottom of How to make one thing become another thing (2017) thematizes the notion that communication occurs partly outside the canvas proper. Neely has produced a body of work that allows for shifting configurations of authorial presence, and one that far exceeds the sum of its parts.