Roy Lerner Paintings

269 Silver Spring Road, South Salem, New York 10590
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Roy Lerner’s paintings keep on surprising me. For every elegant, lyrical abstraction dependent on staccato drawing, subtly inflected surfaces, and delicately orchestrated color, there’s a brash, street-smart picture constructed with deliberately uningratiating HUES and abrupt, overscaled gestures. And for each of these disparate examples, there are still other completely unexpected efforts, ranging from the playful to the frankly outrageous, in which disjunctive, rhythmic patterns and energetic calligraphy compete for attention with all-over expanses of iridescent, shifting CHROMA. And more. Throughout Lerner’s work of the past few years, there are family groups of paintings that explore the implications of a particular notion, but each of those investigations may, in turn, suggest further extensions into new territory – suggestions that Lerner’s apparently insatiable curiosity about the possibilities of painting demands that he follow.

This is not to suggest that Lerner’s pictures are not recognizably his. Quite the contrary. Despite the range of moods and emotional temperatures in his work, a distinctive personality declares itself in his handwriting and his orchestration of color – no matter how varied. Lerner is committed to abstraction, specifically to the belief, derived from Surrealism by way of Abstract Expressionism, that a painting is not a depiction of anything seen but an embodiment of a unique individual’s accumulated experience: experience of daily life, of human relations, of the natural and man-made world, of making art, all of it transformed (if the work is any good) into expressive, wordless images. Lerner’s work is devoid of fashionable cynicism or irony, but instead departs from the assumption that the passionate and even the beautiful – admittedly tempered by the realities of modern life, consumer culture, and mass media – still matter.

Lerner has often exhibited internationally with a group of artists who, according to some commentators, are making modernist abstraction new by their rejection of the presumed norms of American ABSTRACT PAINTING of the 1960s and ‘70s – read “flatness” – in favor of a celebration of “contemporary” color – read “the brilliant hues of the mass media” – and of “new” materials – read “the latest formulations of acrylic paint with all the additives that make it thick or thin, translucent or opaque, crusty or iridescent.” (Eccentric shaping sometimes comes into it as well.) If that was all that was going on in Lerner’s pictures, they probably wouldn’t be worth paying attention to; materials are, after all, merely means to an end, developed or adopted in response to the desiderata of the moment – although it can be argued that the desiderata of a given period can also be responses to what is possible because of available materials. That Lerner takes full advantage of everything currently available to him, from a technical point of view, is mildly interesting but it’s obviously not what keeps us looking at his pictures. That depends, in his strongest works, on their mysterious quality of making feeling visible without words – which is one of the things good art is supposed to do.

Karen Wilkin

New York, February 2002

Continue on to read an essay by Laura Cherubini

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