In its traditional form, gesso consists of ground chalk suspended in a binding medium of rabbit-skin glue. Used for centuries to prime panels and canvases before applying paint, it is an essential but invisible component of most paintings. While many modern artists dispense with gesso to paint directly on raw supports, few have attempted the opposite maneuver. In his newest body of work, Guy C. Corriero eliminates paint and works exclusively with handmade gesso, exploring the aesthetic potential of this typically hidden and utilitarian medium.
Among the six paintings in this show, four use thin plywood boards as supports while the other two are fiberglass casts of similar-size panels. In all instances, the vertically oriented paintings are framed with 1-inch-deep wooden slats, creating the appearance of shallow trays hung on the wall. By adding powdered pigments to a chalk-and-glue recipe, Corriero produces pale shades of gray, green, blue and yellow gesso, which he brushes on the panels in more than 20 layers. Close inspection of these seeming monochromes reveals delicate strata of harmonizing color. The warm gold glow of Uncle Lee (2013, 47½ by 21¾ inches), for example, is the cumulative product of numerous whites and yellows. Similarly, the dominant beige surface of Yoc (2014) is haunted by underlying layers of gray and blue gesso. Corriero’s restrained palette compels notice of other details, too, including the mostly horizontal movement of his brush, occasional bits of trapped debris and clusters of tiny burst air bubbles. Further, the multiple layers of gesso ultimately cause his thin supports to buckle and warp, especially toward their bottom edges, compromising their geometry and heightening awareness of the painting process.
In the show’s press release, the gallery compares Corriero’s process to the repeated action of waxing surfboards, while also noting the human scale of his panels. Indeed, Corriero’s paintings may be viewed as matte and coarse cousins to the highly polished plank paintings of John McCracken—another artist whose methods have been linked to the fabrication and care of surfboards. But to my mind, a more kindred spirit is Whistler, who also frequently painted with priming mediums and exploited visible ground layers to atmospheric effect. And despite the decades between them, Whistler and Corriero share an economy of means that invites viewers to slow down and contemplate very subtle nuances of tone and texture.
Also on view were three untitled clay sculptures atop simple pedestals (2012 or ’13). These hollow, slab-work vessels stand roughly 20 inches high and are all vaguely figurative; even the two forms equipped with arching handles seem to be posing with arms akimbo. But given their placement among process-oriented paintings, one was inclined to focus on Corriero’s manipulation of the medium. Heavily massaged throughout, the clay is riddled with shallow and deep depressions and sometimes smoothed into flat planes. The variegated surfaces gain definition from several layers of glazing in shades of celadon, turquoise and blue. These lustrous colors navigate the kneaded clay in cascades, pools and eddies but leave the protuberant edges mostly exposed as toasted browns—a detail that greatly enlivens these sculptures while confirming Corriero’s interest in the layers that lie beneath.