The mostly abstract painter Suzanne Caporael’s eighth show at Miles McEnery offers an excellent exposure to her direct, but not simple, nonobjective lyricism, often linked to nature. Her work consists of images and patterns that sometimes lean in the direction of feasible recognition, but, generally, the paintings enact schemes that are delightful in their own right, without being accessible in a realist sense. Sharply individuated from each other, the works also enact, in the show, an unusual cohesiveness, in which the particulars of one painting will resonate across the gallery space to another. Thus, a conversation, based not on likeness but related difference, moves into the thought of Caporael’s audience, as viewers contemplate art that thrives mostly on an abstract framework, albeit one that recognizes natural sources (the artist currently lives in upstate New York). The simplicity of her painted elements lends itself to a reading of the work in which design dominates. It is very difficult to tie the arrangements in her compositions to actualities in life, but the history of abstraction in American art allows her to consistently suggest rather than declare. This freedom is key to our enjoyment of her art.
For this writer, one of the most elegant and beautiful works is 759 (specimen) (2020), in which a light, flower-like, four-petaled image exists is the middle of a black design--a solid mass with small V-shaped cutouts on top and the sides. One half of the central image, which can be likened to a cutout by Matisse, is colored a pale blue on the left and has a tall black rectangle backing its right half. The word “specimen” suggests that this is indeed a flower found and picked in the fields; it cannot be said that Caporael’s art is completely abstract. But the forms are simplified to the point of losing any specificity that would identify them within nature. As a result the image’s possible natural origins are worked into a pattern indicative of painting and culture--this may be a good way of describing the artist’s method in general. The painting 749 mask (blow me a kiss) (2020) is a very simple design: a wedge of a black circle, within which is an oval space. Next to this black design is an orange oval whose size fits the open space in the black image. The background is a neutral tan. One hesitates to read so open-ended a pattern as anything but abstract, but then that is its strength. The design is comely in the extreme.
The overall pattern of 754 (Eden) (2020) is geometric: a black stripe with greater thicknesses in the middle (every other turn of the stripe) filling the green background as it moves across and down the field of the composition. Why would the artist call the image “Eden”? The picture seems entirely nonobjective. There are times when the personal meaning of a work of art eludes the conscious vision of the painter’s audience, and here this is likely the case. The image itself may come from another, perhaps earlier or indigenous culture, or it may simply be made up. But the strength of the abstraction cannot be denied. Once again, Caporael seems to be alluding to realities beyond the efflorescence of the image, a key to the work’s attractiveness. In 748 (the beggar’s cup) (2020), an grayish-tan cup is in fact visible in the crossed dark-gray stripes of a grid, painted by hand. Why such a choice of subject matter? The answer cannot be found.
I am not suggesting Caporael is a deliberately mysterious painter, only that there is a hidden allusiveness that seems to result from forms that may be interpreted a number of ways. Even though we usually cannot connect the image to something recognizable, we never feel far from the notion that some kind of realism lies behind the abstraction. This is interesting in the extreme. Meaning in abstraction usually is elucidated by a close reading of forms rather than attention being paid to the subject matter, which remains outside our knowledge. But sometimes Caporael gives us more than a hint in the titles of her works. Thus, we can align with the deliberate content indicated by the artist. Still, nothing is clearly defined; her painterly schemes remain more than slightly enigmatic. But then that is the reason for their lasting effectiveness; they belong not only to a language of their own but to an idiom we might recognize. It must be said that the results are highly accomplished. WM