The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue

Jo Messer: Knees to Navel

Jo Messer, <em>I can't weather weather with you</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 37 x 59 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.
Jo Messer, I can't weather weather with you, 2021. Oil on canvas, 37 x 59 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.

On View
56 Henry
Knees to Navel
April 7 – May 9, 2021
New York

Jo Messer’s solo debut at 56 Henry is focused on two large oil paintings that confront one another in the gallery’s narrow space. These two works entrap the viewer in something like a game of “I Spy.” Never static, they stimulate a strong sense of play: as soon as the eye latches onto an object or figure, it is thrust elsewhere in Messer’s restless network of potent but suggestive imagery and erotic themes.

Messer’s paintings are caught somewhere between abstract expressionism and representation, frequently punctuated by veiled figurations. Her chromatic comfort zone is settled squarely in a color palette that oscillates between vibrant hot pinks and muted yellows and browns. In I can’t weather weather with you (2021), for example, the pink is subtle and semi-obscured, settled into the canvas grain. Its more exuberant neighbor, Once you have it, you’ll never leave it (2021), by contrast, devotes two thirds of its length to a riot of expressionistic color, a Dionysian splendor that bleeds between the two panels of the work. While this palette may allude to a Munchian sensibility, Once you have it notably recalls de Kooning’s midcentury abstractions, which altered the language of modernism by foregrounding color and a nuanced gesturalism. A viewer would also be correct in acknowledging Messer’s alignment with art historical precedents such as Picasso and Braque. Messer, however, expertly repositions this lineage in the 21st century through meta-commentary on the female nude. She is self-aware, for better or for worse.

Jo Messer, <em>Once you have it, you'll never leave it</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas, 47 x 127 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.
Jo Messer, Once you have it, you'll never leave it, 2021. Oil on canvas, 47 x 127 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.

Messer weaves spectral figures throughout her paintings, a translucent portraiture that dethrones the hierarchical subject in favor of something more decentralized and ambiguous. Her works don’t comfortably align with any particular trend in our current moment, and instead draw from apparently distinct impulses, by turns representing desire, claustrophobia, and the extreme present. The content here is not to be taken for granted: follow Messer’s lines as they compose oversized feet, sneakers, faces, and explicit sex acts that fluidly move one into the next. None of this is presented as spectacle. Instead, it is neutralized by Messer’s expert approach to abstraction. Messer also incorporates more vestigial objects such as soda cans and wine glasses in her images. A surgical mask, for example, hangs conspicuously in the top left corner of the diptych Once you have it. The mask operates as a sort of red herring, less a commentary on the current world health crisis than an exploration of the extreme interiority it has forced upon us. More significant are motifs like fans and blow dryers, which activate movement within the domestic settings that we, Messer’s subjects, and Messer herself must all inhabit. Her in-home studio is depicted in each canvas, whether populated by familiar objects or those implanted from the artist’s imagination.

Although they slip between direct representation and ephemerality, Messer’s paintings consistently emphasize the forthright display of eroticism. The canvases expose a domestic bacchanalia, restrained only by the impressions of walls or tiles. These become containment devices, stages for unrestrained sexual acts. The nudity of Messer’s subjects could, we imagine, symbolize dispossession of the self, one’s being laid bare—a fitting parallel for the artist’s expressionistic handling of paint. Vulnerability, then, is the order of the day throughout. But this is a celebratory self-revelation, as Messer’s paintings drip, ooze, flush, and exalt sensuality in all its forms. She champions the exuberance of life, against all odds.

Jo Messer, <em>If now then (when)</em>, 2021. Oil on panel, 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.
Jo Messer, If now then (when), 2021. Oil on panel, 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.

In the gallery’s back room there are several more paintings on view, and although subordinate to the monumental pair in the front, they develop the themes of those larger works effectively. I was quite taken with the smaller painting titled If now then (when) (2021). This piece swirls and dodges between and through Messer’s commonly applied motifs. A floating box fan occupies the top left corner, while oversized feet become a border along the lower edge. The artist’s consistent formal dexterity is impressive at any scale.

Moving between the works on display at 56 Henry, one might be tempted to construct some kind of narrative that unites the paintings. Messer, however, favors an engaged act of decoding that emphasizes time spent with each individual work. Multiple visits provoke new and evocative experiences, and further probing is richly rewarded as images and themes manifest themselves only after sustained scrutiny. As soon as you think you’ve latched onto something, a decisive brushstroke or canny combination of colors carries you elsewhere. Embrace these painterly stimulants.


Reilly Davidson

Reilly Davidson is a writer, curator, and interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her practice is largely research-based, working in both video and tactile poetry, with a distinct focus on capturing an “instant-now.”


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues