Yves Tessier: Woman in Shades Reclining on Bed, 2017, casein on aluminum, 42 by 52 inches; at Shrine.

Yves Tessier’s paintings, ten of which were on view in this exhibition, feature stylized figures that have been reduced to essential elements yet retain a vitality and distinct presence. His favored medium is casein on aluminum. Casein is a rapidly drying milk-based paint that was developed in ancient Egypt and was used in commercial illustration into the 1960s. Tessier nods to the medium’s long history in his works, which formally allude to Egyptian friezes, illuminated manuscripts, and comic book illustrations. 

Tessier, who was born in 1955 in Montreal, maintains studios in both Montreal and Harlem. New York’s Central Park was the backdrop for a number of the works on view, including Ghost Bathers 2 (2017), which depicts six women in and around a teal-colored body of water—some of them standing on rocks, others wading in the water, and another, located in the background, approaching a black bird perched on a branch. While the figures look sedate and withdrawn, their black fingernails give them a witchy appearance, as if they are a coven preparing for a ritual. Ambiguity is a central theme in Tessier’s work, which puts forth a world that seems at once archaic and contemporary. 

Explicitly referencing Japanese shunga (erotic) woodblock prints, Le Mask (2016) shows two women engaged in a pre-coital moment with BDSM undertones. One of the women lies on her back, while the other, wearing a black sleeping mask, climbs on top of her. The supine figure appears distorted: her head and hair are flattened and seem to melt into a cerulean teardrop-shaped pillow. Apart from a few faint surface irregularities, the wall behind the women is a solid field of high-key crimson.

Tessier’s scenes are generally still and quiet. His figures often feel separated from or indifferent to one another. When they do communicate, it is usually through subtle body language. In 3 Youths on a Jetty (2015), for instance, two men standing in the middle ground and a woman facing them in the foreground seem to “speak” to each other through a series of coded hand gestures. One of the men gathers the fabric of his shorts in one hand, the other man makes a gesture recalling the letter “e” in American Sign Language, and the woman crosses one arm at a right angle behind her back. The title figure in Woman in Shades Reclining on Bed (2017) faces us while lounging on her side in a red mesh negligee, white studded heels, and large thick-rimmed sunglasses. In the grand tradition of the odalisque, she commands our attention with her casual confidence. 

Tessier’s figures, despite their simplified nature, feel grounded in reality: small details like the crease in the back of a knee, a knowing expression, or a pair of high heels give them specificity and rescue them from feeling like hollow signifiers. As revealed in his preparatory drawings, which were not on view, Tessier carefully plots out each element in his paintings. The reductive scenes he crafts recall the cells of comic books, as if each one were a single moment plucked from a continuously unfolding drama.