Zwirner: Student art focuses on process and material

“Near and Far,” currently on display at the Green Gallery, features work by students who participated in the Yale/Norfolk Summer Art Program.
“Near and Far,” currently on display at the Green Gallery, features work by students who participated in the Yale/Norfolk Summer Art Program. Photo by Jane Long.

There may be no better way to explore an idea than by rubbing it against one medium or another until there’s a spark.

It was with this kind of art-making in mind, emphasizing process and material over end product, that artists like Eva Hesse, Bruce Naumans, Robert Morris and Richard Serra arrived at much of their work. These artists’ process is a relevant reference for “Near and Far,” the show currently up at the Green Gallery that features work from the Yale/Norfolk summer art program, especially since Hesse herself was an alumni of the program. Though the emphasis on materiality isn’t explicit in the show, the emphasis on pushing ideas to the limit of their medium is fully present.

Grace Needlman’s ’11 paintings on the top floor of the gallery are an example. All her paintings have a fantastical quality about them, both in how they were made and in what they depict — something between the artist’s fantasy and stock fairy-tale imagery. But there is a clear developmental trajectory from left to right across the wall where they hang.

The process begins with the simple outline of a boy seated at a piano, who looks like a character out of a story by the Brothers Grimm. The image is repeated a few times and then abandoned. Further to the right come more detailed sallies: a portrait of a man and a larger one of a woman, both in a similar style but now pushing the caricature aspects of fairy tale imagery slightly further. Finally, the much more abstract paintings to the very far right leave the original motif behind almost completely.

But most interesting is the moment — visible in the largest central painting — when Needlman finds the balance between the constraints of the fairy-tale theme and the freedom of making of an unstructured painting.

The scene — an indoor dinner party — is stylized like the others, but Needleman has increased the childish, fairy-tale feel by using crayon and pencil outlines interspersed with paint, while adding some unexpected elements: clothing painted with flowers, a drunken old man with red toenails.

The result is something rough, but original. Needleman has pushed the painted fairy-tale motif so far that is has turned back on itself: it is Needlman’s own fairy-tale version of some existing fairy tale, and it is effectively poised above the line that separates a piece of art that makes obvious reference to its inspiration from one that is only invisibly attached to it.

Equally effective in their medium are Hannah Zornow’s ’12 pieces. At first glance, the five small pencil drawings hanging on the wall of the lower level of the gallery look uncontroversial, sterile even, because of their size and delicate presentation. In general, pencil drawing is useful for working out the details of smaller objects — flowers, feathers and the like come to mind. But pencil drawings are naturally less effective for images that derive their visual strength not from detail, but from scale, color or sheer abrasiveness.

But Zornow’s pieces draw attention to something extremely important about the medium: You have to be inordinately close to the image to see what it is. You cannot preserve a safe, “subject-object” distance. Though this seems so obvious that it scarcely merits mentioning, the requisite intimacy ensures that every viewer will have his or her face within inches of a drawing before realizing what it depicts. And far from being innocent, Zornow’s images border on the grotesque: the back of a thigh covered in cellulite, a similarly distorted and wrinkled finger, anonymous patches of skin covered with other abrasions.

You might sidle up to one of the five images anticipating a meticulous, naturalistic or structural rendition of some small object, only to be rebuffed by the image’s unexpected explicitness once you’re close enough to be caught off guard. Zornow brings you in with her medium and then lets you have it.

As all student shows ought to be, “Near and Far” is not so much a display of end results, as it is an introduction to an assortment of creative processes. But in a way — probably because we are so rarely allowed access to anyone else’s creative process — there is something even more potent and human about seeing what an idea can push someone to do before its has been subdued and presented in its final form.

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