The ten paintings in McArthur Binion’s show (all 2017 or 2018) were from a series called “Hand:Work.” In one sense, the title is literal: a photographic image of the artist’s hand recurs throughout the paintings, serving as a building block and a serial motif. But “Hand:Work” also refers to labor done by hand, such as Binion’s delicate elaboration of monochrome fields and grids—those long-established emblems of a “post-painterly” approach—in oil stick across the surfaces.
Binion, who was born in Mississippi in 1946 and raised in Detroit, moved to New York in 1973. He began his career in an era when debates about “the death of painting” were pressing and artists looked to more catholic modes to reinvigorate the medium. His peers in New York included Jack Whitten (with whom he shared an interest in striated surfaces and inscribed circles) and the great Guyana-born Frank Bowling. Like them, Binion challenged attempts to unlink abstraction from questions of location and identity by producing work that responded to the supposed neutrality of paintings like Jasper Johns’s “crosshatch” canvases and Larry Poons’s acrylic fields dotted with hard-edge circles or ellipses. As curator Lowery Stokes Sims has noted, such precedents were deeply influential to a young Binion, who sought to perfect his own “homemade geometry . . . to discover how he was like no one else.”
Perhaps to this end, Binion relocated to Chicago in 1991. He taught at Columbia College Chicago between 1992 and 2015 and continued to make work motivated by his desire to develop a personal vernacular within the context of abstraction. The current paintings seem like kin to his series “DNA” (2013–), in which he layers thin strips of personal documents—such as pages from his address book from the 1970s, a who’s who of the Manhattan art world—with painted linework to build up dense compositions suggesting tightly woven fabric. One “Hand:Work” painting at first appears to be a diptych of marigold and charcoal monochromes. As the viewer approaches the piece, an oil-stick grid emerges, followed by a substrate of small repeating fragments—the hand images on the left side, and black-and-white photos of the artist’s childhood home on the right. The insistent trace of Binion’s hand and the photographic evidence of individual lives undermines any sense of monochromatic “purity.” Virtuoso gesture is eschewed for a quieter, arguably more arduous, kind of exertion in this composition, which appears to oscillate between friction and harmony, fragmentation and unity. Three paintings—two in portrait format and one with a landscape orientation—feature relatively large, angled iterations of the hand icon. From afar, the works register as Op art–style fields of pulsating diagonals, while also resembling quilts or printed textiles. Like the aforementioned bifurcated painting, however, they reveal notably tactile, painterly surfaces as the viewer draws near. The grids overlying the hand patterns are thickly applied and wobbly, for instance, and in fact comprise squares of discrete, misaligned grids.
One can be forgiven for thinking that discussions concerning “process” vs. “identity” in painting have long grown tiresome. Nonetheless, it proves exciting to see Binion sounding the edges of the medium with such enthusiasm at a time when the complex intersection of blackness and abstraction is receiving renewed curatorial and scholarly attention and a younger generation of painters has prompted a resurgence of figural work. Even more, it’s bracing to witness an artist at the height of his powers still reaching in new directions.