Bowery Gallery   Janet Gorzegno   May 20 - June 14, 2014      


gouache on paper
8 x 8 in

The small, gem-like gouaches that Janet Gorzegno has produced over the years seem to follow two different tracks: the depictions of human heads, which are notable for both their fineness of modeling and fanciful proportions; and the abstracted mandalas, with their exuberantly controlled colors and geometric forms. Her current show at Bowery Gallery integrates these two tendencies, in works that update with quirky concision the styles of antique, quattrocento and Byzantine portraiture. (Disclosure: I am a fellow member of Bowery.)

History is full of artists who have revisited bygone styles, with mixed results. For me, the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites tend to be nostalgic pastiches – high craft informed mostly by predilections for a particular style. Gustave Moreau, on the other hand, often invigorates his arcane subjects through lively pictorial tensions. In similar fashion, Gorzegno’s gouaches surpass the merely evocative through a keen sense of the pacing of forms and colors.

A very capable draftsman, the artist captures the slightest shifts of light across the intricate details and curving planes of faces. While their rounding noses and lips sometimes suggest a “type” rather than an individual, all are animated by local colors, with tiny changes of hue pacing the movement between, say, the bridge of a nose and an eye lid. In short, her modeling is never merely tonal, as is the case with all too much “realist” painting. While fantastical, the faces feel authentic.

And then there are the extravagant swoops of color that distinguished her earlier abstractions. In the best of her recent work, the rhythmic energies of these colors build towards one climactic effect. In “Source,” for instance, the sinuous contours of three forms palpably stretch and pull in front of a background of vacant pink. The most vertical form culminates, in an upper corner, as a small head surveying the scene below. Each element -- whether or not a recognizable object -- acquires a charged presence, making the image feel far weightier than its ten-inch-square dimensions. “Going (Exiting Pergatorio)” features an amoeba-like shape of dark blues and grays whose contours wind muscularly across the paper’s surface; this, too, resolves in the delicate complexity of a face. In the many gouaches depicting heads in profile, rhythms spell out, in delicious, measured intervals, an undulating silhouette: brow, nose, mouth, chin.

I found myself resisting the delectability of the irregularly torn edges of these works, as well as some of their more eccentric details: the toy-like sailboats, the winged helmets, the coiling snake. But these don’t detract from the lyrical force of a work like “Afterlife of Byzantium,” which harks back to Russian icon paintings with its gold background and red-robed figure; its momentum of color powerfully locates the head within the enclosing fabric, and the figure’s diagonal drive through space.

Most impressive of all may be “Guardian,” in which sweeps of color and intricate rendering meet in particularly potent fashion. Here the circulating arcs of a head lead to both the meticulous facial features along one edge – with that remarkably subtle variety of color – and a central vortex of bright geometric shapes. These abstract forms conform to no known type of headgear, and yet they belong persuasively on the head; one’s eye moves, with a cogent sense of measure, from the details of lips, to the expansive rim of the head, and back in again to the small abstract articulations of the “headgear,” just an inch or so from the starting point. This small gouache achieves a rare combination: the complex pictorial eloquence of traditional art, and a modernist’s disclosure of the formal process behind it.

Bowery Gallery
530 W. 25th St., New York NY 10001
646-230-6655 · www.bowerygallery.org