Dona Nelson pushes her paintings hard. They’re doused in thinned acrylics, splattered with gooey tar gel medium, festooned with wads and strips of cheesecloth (that are sometimes then ripped off) and, occasionally, stabbed with ice picks. She’s even invented a solution for a problem we didn’t know existed for the medium: how to make paintings so that they can be seen from all sides without losing the flatness of the image.
Nelson cites Pollock’s late paintings and Miró’s anti-paintings as inspiration, and like the efforts of Pollock and Miró, her wrestling with the medium brings up its dark side. Acknowledging a violent impulse in the making, she flirts with painting’s destruction yet expands its definition ever further. Paintings have been installed freestanding before (e.g., the Nicolas Poussin at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, or all those double-sided Renaissance panels), but the double-sided freestanding format has become Nelson’s trademark as surely as the squeegee is Gerhard Richter’s or the curved stretcher Elizabeth Murray’s.
Of the eight paintings in the show, five are two-sided. These all begin with a thin stain tracing the crossbar and stretcher grids on the back. The largest, Phigor (2014), at 117 by 70 inches, was suspended a few inches above the floor on a metal stand and pushed out a couple of feet from the wall by two black tubes that attached to the stretcher near its top. The white crossbars, two vertical and four horizontal, partially obscure the exuberant dark splashes on the back of the canvas. Controlled pours on the front cover most of the red-stained crossbar grid, and resolve into a central, ghostly, blue-and-ocher shape that is pushed into place by a white veil wrapping around the edges of the painting. The front surface is crusted with dried residue of bubbles and smears of medium.
In March Hare (2014), the most allover composition in the show, a blue tic-tac-toe grid is faintly visible on both sides. As with two other freestanding paintings, Nelson has removed the crossbars so that both sides can be seen unobscured. The trail of viscous tar gel on the front records where cheesecloth was applied and, once dry, scraped off. The resulting zig-zag web keeps the composition from settling into a clear shape. In Top (2014), pigment-rich opaque pours float like contiguous countries (separated by walls of thick medium) on top of the stained forest-colored surface—a nod, perhaps, to Miró’s shapes as much as to aerial views of land. The clashing materials—earth-hued stains, translucent tar gel borders and plasticky, artificial-colored spills—shock with their utter incompatibility, as surprising as the small holes that punctuate Orangey (2011).
Nelson has long been known as a painter’s painter, and the risks she takes with her work have had enormous influence among the many young painters whose renewed interest in unorthodox processes has been so prominent in the last five to 10 years. There is no overarching explanation for why each painting here compels the viewer’s attention. Often the works’ very brazenness is hard to look away from. Nelson’s commitment to trying anything, and her openness to wildly unexpected definitions of how a painting might “succeed,” makes her work a model of a form of art-making that demands much of its audience. At a moment when we are faced with unprecedented challenges, both ecological and social, Nelson’s work provides a resonant example of how radical experimentation can be combined with rigorous process to redefine our sense of what’s possible.