Sebastian Black

New York

at Clearing


Sebastian Black’s recent solo exhibition was both promising and disappointing. The artist, who was born in 1985 and lives in New York, has already scored an impressive number of shows, presenting both quasi-abstract paintings and forays into sculpture, installation and a sundry array of projects that signal a desire to avoid being seen as “just” a painter. Here, two standing 6-by-10-foot aluminum panels and three items of clothing shared the airy gallery with five medium-size paintings, all from 2013.

Black is very skilled, with a particular talent for rendering the carefully considered edges of the geometric forms in his paintings. He does not rely on the clinical-feeling solution of tape. Brushed or gently scraped, the shapes just touch, without overlapping or butting too jarringly against one another.

Each painting presents a narrow range of values—Unique Newark, Motif Lite is mostly beachy blues, greens, grays and off-whites, while Unique Newark, Pink Blink uses primarily translucent pigments like quinacridone or cobalt for its cool-hued pink and purple shapes. Compositions suggest female torsos or puppy faces, and recall abstractions by Alexei Jawlensky and other early modernists who turned the observed world into a puzzle of simple forms. In Pink Blink, the illusion of a figure (or puppy) is accomplished through the addition of white in two narrow triangles that float a few inches from the sides of the painting. The white renders the colors opaque and makes the spaces between the figure’s arms and flanks (or the puppy’s ears and cheeks) pop in the push-pull way that has been a staple of color courses since the Bauhaus.

The folded aluminum panels, titled Period Piece (partition) 1 and 2, resemble dressing screens. According to the gallery, it required four people to get them up the stairs—and if the awkward massiveness of such pieces recalls the macho metal sculpture of Serra, their white spray-painted surfaces and the barely visible laser-etched letters and punctuation that adorn one side of each suggest weightlessness. That sense is amplified by the handful of small black-painted geometric shapes scattered over them. The artist-written press release refers to a slippery line between art and commerce (“the art and philosophy books that J. Crew uses as pedestals to display boat shoes, or whatever”), and the two partitions do seem to embody an uncomfortable tension between high art and middlebrow commerce, as well as between the heaviness of metal and the lightness of design, and between sculpture and architecture. But shortcomings in the finish—particularly the imperfect airbrushing and some stray finger streaks—are distracting, and leave the pieces feeling like a not-quite-completed thought.

A wooden hanger hooked onto the back of Period Piece (partition) 1 held a sheer silk shirt. The shirt, Parable of the Wearable, like the clothing that hung on mannequins in the show, is a collaboration with the fashion designer India Donaldson (Black’s girlfriend). Each garment cleverly echoes the illusion of torsos or puppy faces in the paintings: a leather minidress with a looped cord draws a pair of breasts with its shadow, the shirt bears dyed shapes that could be breasts and a pubic triangle (or floppy ears and nose), and the felt jacket’s breast-pocket flaps have fringes resembling cartoon eyelashes. The clothes were the best thing in the show, genuinely odd in their combination of beautiful facture and dopey imagery. But for an artist with such evidently sophisticated conceptual and technical training, the show felt underwhelming, as Black punched below his weight. One wishes he had aimed heavier.