Maya Bloch’s paintings reproduce so vividly—the saturated hues of the figures leaching into arresting, subsidiary stains, forms and patterns—that one might suspect a printing error, that the real things cannot possibly measure up. But measure up they did in this tight exhibition of seven acrylics on canvas (all 2009 or 2010). In her first New York solo, the Israeli artist demonstrated an impressive command of her medium, with which she achieves effects from a diaphanous film of wispy wash to a thick, textural crust.
Despite their frequent concentration on singular figures (in four of the works), Bloch’s paintings are not portraits, as the individuals are spared any identifying characteristics. The artist has even refrained from titling her works, delegating this task to the gallery, which has obliged with simple, unobtrusive designations. Instead of the figures, it’s the surrounding textures and details that often attract attention. The blue and white lattice of the table and the patterned shafts of light on the wall in Untitled (Six Figures at a Table) vacillate between decor and a more autonomous presence. The horizontal slats or stripes in the chair of Untitled (Reclining Figure) pulsate with an intensity that rivals the image’s central figure, whose silhouette is filled with patches of electric blue, swirls and stains, and brushstrokes that coalesce into an emotionless mask. In Bloch’s works, bodies and faces are abstract, approximate, making them seem by a different hand than that which fashioned the comparatively realistic backgrounds and surrounding elements.
Untitled (Man at a Table) presents the most straightforward figure study of the lot. The man’s face, in profile, reveals an uncharacteristically detailed physiognomy of pensive eye and lid, set in striking juxtaposition to a less probable nose of fiery red. At times, as in Untitled (Four Figures) or Untitled (Seated Figure), Bloch briefly adumbrates an eye socket, or the shadow that gives contour and substance to a nose. But these nuances are generally slighted in favor of more jarring, and fascinating, effects. Even when Bloch imputes more depth to a scene—as in Untitled (Seated Figure)—that very depth asserts itself as a flat pattern of geometric shapes, a grid of floor tiles in this case. The paintings’ ultimate, irreducible planarity refuses to make way for the figures, which instead hover in a compressed purgatorial space, neither flat nor volumetric.
Bloch’s figuration is sometimes reminiscent of the work of Marlene Dumas, yet it also brings into play the lessons of Munch and Ensor, particularly in the rendering of the face as a kind of mask, by turns endearing and ghastly. Something of these painters’ portrayed affects—between a charged psychological angst and blasé deadpan—informs Bloch’s work as well. Yet her use of acrylic to volatile and variable ends, and her success therein, seems all her own.
Photo: Maya Bloch: Untitled (Reclining Figure), 2010, acrylic on canvas, 59 by 47 inches; at Thierry Goldberg.