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Trudy Benson, Circling Back, 2019

The divide between abstraction and figuration is a false, but helpful, dichotomy. Painters who are primarily concerned with the interactions between color, line, and form also make marks and shapes that may suggest body parts, landscapes, and objects traditionally relegated to still lifes. Even monochrome paintings can conjure familiar settings: A gray canvas might evoke a rock face, while a blue one may suggest the sea.

This principle can go the other way, as well. “I would consider myself a figurative painter fundamentally,” artist Louise Giovanelli told me, “but I certainly have a loose idea of figuration—anything that suggests a form, even if this suggestion is faint.”

A new generation of painters, all 40 years old or younger, are rethinking what we might call, for lack of a better term, abstraction. For them, labels aren’t important. They’re more interested in the infinite ways paint can be applied to develop suggestive, beguiling, and transcendent compositions. They explore what it means to make a painting in the digital age and use contemporary research to generate new patterns and designs. Despite the diversity of these artists’ practices, a near-mystical devotion to the act of making and a desire to communicate via symbols and hues unites them all.

B. 1985, Richmond, Virginia. Lives and works in New York.

The sharp angles and dancing, riotously colored blocks in Trudy Benson’s paintings suggest that her most significant reference is the grid itself. “To me, abstraction means that the material and process are essential to the schematics of the painting,” she said. “I am illustrating sets of relationships between colors, mark-making, and surface.”

As viewers notice the interactions between shape, color, and line, they are led to assess the logic that makes the painting’s structure cohere. In Circling Back (2019), for example, a series of lines cut through squares filled with smaller squares. Looking at one of Benson’s canvases is like playing an optical game, searching for small moments and brushstrokes for the eye to latch onto and analyze.

To make these works, Benson employs a multi-step process that results in the appearance of varied textures and depths. She applies and layers paint via spraying, brushing, and squeezing directly from the tube. Benson occasionally employs a “hard-edge painting technique,” lightly masking certain sections with tape so that her paint bleeds under the tape edge. The results are jazzy and joyous.

— Alina Cohen

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