Oil paint is made formix media and small, glossy Windsor-brand paint tubes. It blends easily and dries slowly. Some say it is naturally more vibrant than acrylic, giving it romantic connotations, auras.William de Kooning, a defining painter of modern art, declared, “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” Wellthen, is there anything acrylic paint can do that oil can’t?
John Hoyland’s paintings —now on view in the Yale Center for British Art’s exhibition “The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art From the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie” — give us that answer, shattering oil’s glory.
Hoyland’s paintings crackle with life. Hoyland’s “Devilaya 28.12.17,” the first painting one sees walking into the exhibit, consists of abstract geometric shapes that burn with resurfaced undertones, giving the image’s large central trianglea vibrating, disembodied appearance.
Holland’s work does not have to rely on the natural vibrancy of oil paint because it’s steeped in the working knowledge required to properly manipulate acrylic. He orchestrates, arranges and aligns color to amplify tonal ranges. Some of his more recent pieces represent dark circles against a vast purple-black background that expands outerspace-like.
Also, he globs paint on, revealing the materiality of acrylic itself, which when drybecomes plastic.
Unlike oil paint, acrylic dries rapidly. Mixing and blending to create representational art — those soft transitions between object and shadow in a pastoral field — is more of a challenge. Acrylic paint’s temporality urges artists to create their own compensatory systems. For example, in the works in the back of the exhibition, Hoyland seems to have pitched paint onto his canvases, as though he was racing against the clock. But he didn’t forget to place colors that aren’t too bright — but bright enough — on the perimeters of the canvas, and to include color combinations of the inner color on the outer edges. Hoyland knows how to centralize and decentralize the electricity of his works, giving the viewer an all-over feeling, much like Mark Rothko’s massive, experiential floating rectangles.
Though the collection contains many Hoyland pieces, other painters such as the works of Patrick Caulfield, John Walker, R. B. Kitaj, Howard Hodgkin and Ian Stephenson are also on view. Walker’s oil painting, “Conservatory 1/Manon,” usesdark and light neutrals in a space of scraped-out shapes. At the opposite end of the gallery, Kitij’s oil painting, “WEJ (after Auerbach),” portrays a jarringly ambiguous man, hastily rendered as disjointed body parts. The work calls to mind Nicolai Abildgaard’s 1775 masterpiece “The Wounded Philoctetes,” harkening back to a tradition long passed, but haughtily re-presented.
Hoyland puts to rest the anxieties that acrylic painters roll over in bed at night thinking about: Robert Reed exclusively uses acrylic to teach kids how to paint. Maybe that’s all it’s good for, one could say. But if anything, the inability of acrylic to give us a real human face has pushed thinkers into abstraction. The artists in this exhibit pioneered the 1960s idea that the old tradition of painting had been exhausted. These pieces are emotional and vehemently opposed to conventional expectations of space and color. They challenge the viewer to question the limitations imposed by the washed-out perceptions of what makes paintings glow.
“The Independent Eye” will be on view until Jan.2.