‘Marie Antoinette’s Headdress’ by Grace Hartigan (left) and ‘Hit it from the Side’ by Joshua Bienko / Courtesy St. Charles Projects.

“We must be massive and ugly to find something new,” the late Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan wrote in a journal in 1951. I let that swim around my mind as I squint at a reproduction on my phone of her 2004 lithograph titled ‘Marie Antoinette’s Headdress,’ its prominent, marker-like, smeary black lines bending and dawdling atop a warm yellow background.

The print was on view for the opening of “Pre-Verse,” a show at St. Charles Projects, curated by Dominic Terlizzi, featuring three contemporary artists—Joshua Bienko, June Culp, and Delphine Hennelly—whose work is “in conversation with” Hartigan. The print was a gift to Terlizzi from Hartigan for helping her teach at MICA’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting, where she was the director from 1965 until her death in 2008. (Visitors can also ask Terlizzi to view the print; I was not able to see it due to scheduling conflicts, which is why I’m viewing it on a screen right now. Full disclosure, I once took a class taught by Terlizzi at MICA.) In the piece, four or five large, bulbous shapes splatter and linger on the paper; a train of curls emerges from below the bulbs, and leafy, feathery shapes crowd near the top of the composition. The shapes make it look at once like some bourgeois wig and a few abstracted assholes.

Thinking about Hartigan’s storied boldness and volatility, and looking at the rest of the work in this show, that reading doesn’t feel too crude. Each of the three artists in “Pre-Verse” all paint the figure, sometimes provocatively—and in different modes, they abstract it, obfuscate it, and make caricatures of it. The show’s title is a play on the word “perverse,” though it also alludes to links between poetry and painting and intuition, and how Bienko, Culp, and Hennelly may be driven to paint before they have literal words to describe their intentions (that is, the curatorial statement notes, they paint “pre-verse”). Make a painting and learn from it, and then make another, and another, and another.

In addition to providing paintings for the show, the artists were asked to provide “external forms of influence,” which are displayed as relatively anonymous xeroxes on a table: scans of sketchbook pages, Japanese idioms and their English translations, a photo of houseplants and children in kimonos, mysterious textures, poetry, and so on—these pieces of information and influence, it would seem, are also part of that intuitive process. We are left with a lot to chew on.

Many of Baltimore-based artist Culp’s small-ish paintings in the show share a common subject: a naked, wrinkly, squat red or blue dragon/demon figure whose breasts and genitals are often on exaggerated display, like some combination of a Venus of Willendorf and a Sheela na Gig—the former often considered a fertility symbol, the latter a way to ward off evil. Culp often paints the creature’s horned face with a fanged and whiskered red mouth grinning and open and eyes glaring.

Though this often-central creature herself is somewhat frightening, the tension in Culp’s paintings often lies in the periphery. Hanging in a short dark hallway near the back of the space, ‘Bruised Green Girl’ stands out—instead of a demon figure we find a stony, gray and mint-colored girl, whose stump-like legs seem to be set in motion. Yet, disembodied red claws—another demon/dragon’s, maybe—hold her in place, grabbing her side, arm, and thigh. She stares blankly away to the right and she holds her hands up, as if in defense from the veiny, fire-engine-red dick in the painting’s upper left corner. Nearby, in ‘Small Lightening,’ a blue creature, accented with highlighter pinks and greens, seems to be contained by a web of bright green lightning. In these paintings it becomes unclear who is the menace: whether it’s the creature or the background actors, or both.

Compared to the sexualized/demonized, vulnerable/scary creatures in Culp’s paintings, Bienko’s and Hennelly’s paintings feel more subdued. But there is drama in each of the works—and the tensions are heightened and stretched, moving in the gallery from a pair of Culp’s small paintings to a wall-sized Hennelly painting to a pair of small Bienko works. Like the idea of the “pre-verse” and the multitude of artists’ influences, the display highlights how we see the work in relation to one another, and the meanings we make of them diverge from there.

Bienko’s untitled painting and its neighbor, ‘Table Cloth,’ both use a color palette of pinks and warm and cool grays, and vague bodies, and patterns that feel delicate but also, well, just laid down there. In the untitled one, a pink fleshy daub of paint in the shape of what looks like a curvy body emerges from the right edge of the canvas against a swath of forest green. An orange and blue pattern reads like a Persian rug hanging over the left side of the painting, and between these, in the middle of the canvas, is a snow white, dappled, jagged shape—like snow falling over spindly mountains, and then along the bottom edge is possibly a cityscape, suggested by what look like silhouetted architectural domes and peaks. It is unclear, but I fall in anyway, trying to pick up the logic.

‘Table Cloth,’ meanwhile, has what I can only see as two peachy, pinky nude bodies tenderly boning in front of a background that also feels snowy. Painted wispily and thin, the pink body, which is spread atop the more orange-peach one, causes me to search for some mental association other than the one that stays stuck in my head (Matisse’s ‘Large Reclining Nude’).

On an opposite wall are two paintings from Bienko’s series “Hit it from the Side,” an experimentation in visual rhythms. The one on the left, a matte black swerving tangle of brushwork on top of a glowing green, all crowded in by ultramarine blue—colors that meld so that I can’t even really see what is happening here. And then my eyes travel to the painting next to it, featuring a noodle-like Gumby-colored worried-looking guy, his spindly fingers awkwardly grasping something as he marches. Elsewhere, in another piece from this series, Bienko uses  black oil paint that bleeds into its ground so that it appears more like ink, and that mysterious object the figure awkwardly holds looks more like a marching bass drum.

The motion of marching crops up in Hennelly’s paintings too, though the action stays somewhat shrouded by her technique. In one large painting, ‘Walk on Mars,’ two flat, cartoony bundles of pink and blue flowers frame the painting’s top edge. The main “scene” here is covered with horizontal stripes of high-key pink and yellow shades, among orange and mud-colored shades. It’s only with some optical exercises like squinting, blurring, and stepping closer or away, that I start to be able to discern what I’m looking at. Two similarly postured figures seem to be marching, and carrying what look like small children on their backs. Those Looney Toon flowers crowd over both figures’ heads.

‘Run Through the Fiesta’ by Delphine Hennelly (left) and ‘Small Lightening’ and ‘Lightening’ by June Culp/ Courtesy St. Charles Projects.

Across from that is another large painting, ‘Run Through the Fiesta,’ with a similar approach: pastel colored cartoon flowers and two figures in blue moving in step, carrying small children on their backs, obfuscated by a system of horizontal lines. Those lines could seem like a glitched-out screen, like a VHS tape causing static, the way screens appear to vibrate when you’re looking at them on another screen, captured by a camera.

In the middle of the gallery—right between more bawdy Bienko and Culp paintings—is ‘Blue Storm,’ an idyllic oasis in another piece by Hennelly. It feels so saccharine in comparison to its neighbors, a piece of sentimental antique-shop-kitsch: a blue-gray bonneted woman sits arm-in-arm with a gray, ponytailed girl on some grassy bank near perfectly blue water. With scarce visual drama in a show full of it, I search. Where her other two paintings with the figures’ identities obscured seem mostly formalistic, in this one I read into what looks like a mother/daughter relationship. And then I go back and read into the others, wondering what they’re trying to tell me. There are things to care for, to carry or console, things to run towards or from.

And that blue is so calm, and some of these thoughts feel too facile or convoluted, and that is the pit I keep falling into here. Perhaps that is by design; art is hard to make and hard to un-knot through writing, the writing after the painting adds another layer. Terlizzi has also invited poets to see the show and respond to it, and all of this theater adds to these tangled chains of inquiry and intuition that go into “a work,” whatever that is (a painting, a poem, a show, a review). My review is finished and I haven’t even mentioned Hartigan’s best friend Frank O’Hara yet.

“Pre-Verse” is up at St. Charles through mid-January. For more info, visit stcharlesprojects.com.

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