"Likesness" at Northern-Southern
In this group exhibition, people who depict people are the luckiest people in the world
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., June 7, 2019
When a gallery is run by a man who commits graphic design for a living, and when that gallery is mostly known for its display of abstract works and conceptual installations, and especially when that gallery is Phillip Niemeyer's Northern-Southern, a show of nothing but figurative work – evocations of the human form and features – will require some fierce industry to match what's come before.
Spoiler alert: Plenty of fierce industry here, citizen.
Northern-Southern's new "Likesness" exhibition boasts a roster of solid talent making a human-focused garden of visual delights across the walls of the intimate two-room venue on East 12th. But not just the walls: A couple of pedestals are in the mix, too, because sculpture – and let's look at that first.
Laura Lit doesn't usually work in sculpture, although she's all about figurative images. She's got two sculptural pieces in this show made from paper clay, but she's done only paintings before. If you know her earlier work (or if you go to her website right now to get an eyeful), you'll note that "she's done only paintings before" is a drastic understatement. Complete humans inhabit her canvases, rendered with the sort of deep realism that Caravaggio flourished in, once he got that whole trick with the shadows down. And these first two sculptures of Lit's are of that impressively realist ilk – in three dimensions now, although the smaller-than-life-sized works are just the top halves of two women. "Perhaps they are the other Lauras that exist in the multiverse?" suggests the artist. And perhaps, if we're lucky, we'll be introduced to more of them in the future – but this is a fine debut.
Dawn Okoro's got bodies on canvas, too, and they galvanize a pair of walls here. Active bodies, African American bodies, posed or halted in mid-kinesis; the sort of figures that are, of course, static (this isn't video, right?) yet simultaneously so dynamic in the way they're depicted with broad strokes of pigment, the way the realistic portraits are enhanced with abstract swirls of color, and the way the color is often copper leaf. Best of both worlds, we're thinking. Because if you see such abstract swirls by themselves, maybe you think, "Cool, but does the artist do this because she can't handle realism?" And if you see a good portrait, maybe you're like, "Yeah, but what about a wild flourish somewhere in there?" Because some viewers can be capricious, demanding shits, can't they? Okoro's works shut that nonsense down while opening appreciative eyes wider.
Saul Jerome San Juan runs Atelier 1205 over on Cesar Chavez, and we've long been impressed by his curatorial decisions. In his section of "Likesness," we see the sort of deep drafting skill that backs up his creative résumé. "Queer and Filipino American," says his gallery bio, "San Juan paints the other: Blue-eyed men with white skin sunburned pink in Yeti hats with sleeveless tees." (Indeed, although that's his own damned Yeti hat that he lends them.) And he draws and paints these guys – just headshots – using graphite, alkyd, and oils on canvas panels. These aren't bold depictions like Okoro's, and they aren't the OMG-is-that-a-photo paintings that Lit does when she's not busy with paper clay. These are drawings of human faces that look like drawings of human faces; but they're the sort of renditions that are so good that other artists, when regarding them, might think, "Well, fuck, why do I even bother picking up a pencil?" You know what we mean.
That's just three out of the six artists represented in this show. It's not that the others aren't worth noting; it's that there's a certain word count available and that, anyway, we're not going to tell you all that you can easily see for yourself. Because right now, Northern-Southern is full of people – and you should be, however briefly, among them.
“Likesness”Northern-Southern, 1900-B E. 12th
Through July 9