Precise, vigorous and affecting, the bravura brushstrokes covering each of the 15 recent abstract paintings by Julian Lethbridge in this show coalesce with a super-charged intensity. Using narrow brushes, an inch or two wide at most, and nearly monochrome palettes, Lethbridge packs these allover compositions with countless layers of short, fluid marks. Though abstract, the paintings are inflected with dark areas that appear as shadows, creating dramatic illusionistic effects.
From a distance, each canvas seems richly tactile, as if there is great variety in the play of depth. Sometimes the paint looks like pulled taffy and, elsewhere, it appears as if chunks of pigment have been gouged out. On closer inspection, however, the surfaces, made with oil paint and pigment sticks, prove to be quite flat.
Untitled and completed within the past several years, all of the compositions are based on a loose grid. Early in the process, Lethbridge uses long, thin metal bands like rulers to guide his hand in establishing the underlying design. The technique serves to impede and confine the painterly gestures. In some works the grid structure remains plainly visible, and in others it has been completely obliterated.
Averaging 6 feet tall, the works engage the viewer physically in a way that reproductions do not convey. A horizontal canvas in vermilion and bone white (2012, 80 by 96 inches), for instance, features clusters of rhythmic brushstrokes in irregular horizontal bands that traverse the canvas. The field of alternating slashes of red set against the off-white ground engulfs the viewer in an expanse of warm, shifting light, without a defined focal point. Unlike those in Abstract Expressionist painting, the gestures seem compressed and subordinate to the grid, a format more closely allied with minimalism. The work has an overriding meditative calm.
By contrast, a vertical composition of the same year (96 by 80 inches), jammed with countless white, black and gray marks, suggests a tumultuous upheaval. Interspersed among the high-contrast brushstrokes are feverishly applied touches of light gray, pink and green. Here and there, dark shadowy touches seem to highlight a dense impasto.
Commanding one wall, a series of seven paintings of identical size (72 by 36 inches), ranging in hue from gray and mauve to violet and crimson, are certainly capable of eliciting a similar range of emotions. Each work suggests a full-length mirror that beckons the viewer to a highly personal reflection.
Born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, and now living in New York, Lethbridge has developed over the course of more than three decades a rather esoteric brand of formalist abstraction. He addresses issues related to Ab Ex and Minimalism that may not be au courant. Yet in this tour-de-force show, Lethbridge proves that virtuosity never goes out of fashion.
PHOTO: Julian Lethbridge: Untitled, 2012, oil and pigment stick on linen, 96 by 80 inches; at Paula Cooper.