The headline show at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery (http://www.sikkemajenkinsco.com – 530 West 22nd Street) is Elizabeth Neel, whose work falls into several genres, each of which affected me differently.
First you find the small works on paper: acrylics and collages. They are remarkable for so completely straddling the figurative/abstract line that I stood and looked a long time at all of them, trying to decide what I was looking at. I always know that the longer I am compelled to look at a painting, the more successful it is.
In the second gallery are larger pieces. There is a very big sculpture dominating the center of the space, which is surrounded by oversized oil paintings on the walls. In the two-dimensional pictures, Neel has clearly used tape and overlays to make voids in her paint, creating a real sense of something missing: something for which we long, something that used to be there that we want to see. Again, the mystery kept me looking.
The press release for the show referenced scientific principles as the inspiration for Neel’s work, but I have to say I didn’t understand the explanation. Of course, it didn’t matter to me, because I was mesmerized anyway.
THEN, I wandered into the rear galleries to find a Kara Walker installation from 2010 that is being shown in New York for the first time, along with a new work from this year, Wall Sampler 1. Long a fan, I have never seen Kara Walker’s work in person, and it was wonderful.
The larger work is The Nigger Huck Finn Pursues Happness Beyond the Narrow Constraints of your Overdetermined Thesis on Freedom – Drawn and Quartered by Mister Kara Walkerberry, with Condolences to The Authors. It covers two walls and also includes small gouaches. Ms. Walker’s work has always been controversial, with its brilliant use of the old-fashioned paper cameo to show us the ugliness of the American slave-owning past. The cut-outs are human-sized and tell multiple stories about the imbalance of power and the frequent cruelty and rare kindness of that era. They can be hard to look at, but even harder to look away from.
Knowing how difficult it is to access personal pain and then display it in one’s art, I admire Ms. Walker deeply for her bravery and talent. Enough gushing? I’ll stop now.
The two women showing at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. are making art on the razor’s edge. Don’t miss your chance to see it all. Both shows close on May 22nd.