Over the last several years, Josephine Halvorson has developed a corpus of paintings into which viewers can sink their proverbial teeth: images of sturdy, substantial objects rendered on the canvas with a palpable heft. While her work has most often featured architectural and industrial subjects like outhouse doors and peeling shutters, metal tools and factory molds, the paintings she recently exhibited at Sikkema Jenkins (all 2017) focus largely on natural sights she encountered while walking near her residence in Massachusetts, mostly in the woods. Moss, pebbles, stones, bark, twigs, and leaves form a new repertoire for Halvorson’s brush, which appears entirely at home with the deep browns and rust reds of the forest.
Even among these glimpses of the natural world, we find subtle architectural elements: a broken fence post, a portion of stone paving. Signs crop up in several works. A full six of the twenty-five paintings show “No Trespassing” signs. In each instance, the notice appears weathered and damaged, whether torn (Broken in Two), disintegrating (Jagged), or extant only as a fragment (What Is Left). Of course, the intimacy with which these signs have been painted suggests a flouting of their warning.
Indeed, most of the images present their subjects in close proximity. For all the paintings’ evocation of Thoreau’s Walden or Robert Frost’s verse, they represent not a transcendental American landscape but an entirely immanent one, with their detailing of things like tree bark and fallen saplings. Halvorson’s figuration occasionally flirts with elements of abstraction, as in Callus, where a tree’s cortex appears peeled back, exposing a ripple of shapes bordering on the nonobjective. Her touch routinely escapes academic pedantry by hovering between a characteristic trompe l’oeil virtuosity and a frank admission of paint’s materiality.
Greenery is not Halvorson’s strong suit; Perimeter Leaves makes one want to push aside its somewhat clumsy foliage to get at the wooden stake hidden behind. It is when she turns her brush to derelict surfaces that Halvorson reaches her greatest power. Portraying a board with peeling numbers and letters stuck to it, the brilliant Permit faithfully conjures the whorls of the wood and the glint of the stickers. Equally arresting is Birch Skin, which focuses on a tree trunk, the roundness of which is evoked masterfully (I had to check several times whether or not the canvas itself had been shaped).
A series of gouache-and-silkscreen works titled “Broadsheets” lined the walls of one gallery space, all on sheets of paper measuring 22½ by 24½ inches, roughly the size of the eponymous newspaper format. Each work features a painted image of a patch of ground and, above it, on the same sheet, a silkscreened image of a yellow tape measure featuring the word hours for its unit of length. Thus, these images, Halvorson seems to suggest, operate within both spatial and temporal registers (a notion bound up with the premise of a newspaper daily). In Broadsheet (Measure), a piece of a broken flood marker with esoteric-seeming ciphers appears both curious and timely, in the wake of this summer’s tragedies.
Although Halvorson has turned her gaze to nature, she evokes an environment still marked by humankind, staked out and spray-painted, delimited and demarcated. Stamped prominently with usa, the grate shown in Road Drain perhaps alludes, tongue-in-cheek, to our current political environment, or perhaps to the fate of the environment itself.