LONG MUSEUM WEST BUND
From June 10th to August 13th 2023, Long Museum (West Bund) will present American artist Lucy Bull’s first solo exhibition Venus World. This exhibit features eight abstract paintings, including the artist’s first large-scale diptych spanning nearly six meters.Mimesis remains the fundamental paradigm of art. Art copies. But it is one thing to copy from the world of sense perception, it is another to copy supra-sensuous reality. This latter category of art seeks to picture that which lies beyond the perceptual material world. It is expressive of the subjective spirit that animates experience but is not reducible to any particular object or form. It is a synesthetic experience of reality, wherein webs of likenesses are expressed by unlike forms.
Even at their most ambitious, Lucy Bull’s paintings emphasize intimacy and exchange with their viewer. They are not predicated or dependent on material foreign to the works themselves. Her paintings explore the capacity for objectifying a subjective aesthetic reality for the purpose of making it experienceable by the viewing public. The muscle of her technical skill is employed to satisfy that end.
Color is the primary register upon which Bull’s paintings attain aesthetic immediacy with the viewer, and is where she is most deft. Her sense of color derives not from life but from the possibilities of her paint, from color divorced from objecthood, reminiscent of the palettes of Impressionism and Fauvism. Bull has created an alphabet of marks from the gestural possibilities of her instruments. The marks and forms are organic. They never articulate straight lines, for that would yoke Bull’s automatism to an antithetical purity. Her staccato patterns vibrate due not to any digital precision but to their expressive inexactitude.
What is perhaps most intriguing from an art historical perspective is the treatment of illusionistic space within Bull’s work. Swaths of color are laid out in fields, leaf-like strips, or nebulous orb shapes. Into these she scratches repeated lines, echoing the forms’ outer contours, suggesting the extrusion of the underlying shape into three-dimensional space. The result is an uncanny suspension between two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional volumes. This tension of space is complimented by her use of gentle dry brushing, which in areas creates a density of air that recalls Turner’s epic landscapes. From one area to the next, this atmospheric weight and formal entanglement can quickly alleviate, to reveal sharply distinct layers and forms.
The pictures in Bull’s paintings exist beyond the discreet marks and colors. Utilizing her unique mark language and her intuitive grasp of color dynamics, Bull orchestrates undulating resonances across the plane of her paintings. She has a tendency to opt for long or tall formats, which encourage a different kind of engagement. Standing close and scanning across the surface topographically enables an unorthodox experience of painting. The work passes by cinematically. A chartreuse yellow is laid down beneath a feathered chartreuse green, similar enough in color for their differences to vibrate with corrosive energy. A string of staccato stabs traces a feathered glissando and fades away. Bull’s marks take on the guise of characters, with all the expressive dynamics the metaphor implies. Scenes come and go, and tensions rise and fall. The viewer can take in this cinematic painting rhizomatically. There is no beginning nor end—no particular entry, exit, or center of gravity. There is no stable sense of succession. The viewer is responsible for the unfolding of events, for what their eye may next uncover. This is the way in which Bull paints the pictures, after all. She moves close to the linen, following a trajectory in the composition, developing it through rhythm and harmony, and moves away from it, letting her attention relax, to recontextualize, and begin again elsewhere.
22:31 is emblematic of the rhizomatic character of Bull’s approach. At a distance, the composition dances in a lurching gesticulation, cascading across the plane of the linen. From the weight of the pulsing dark waves atop the picture to the rolling crimson knolls entering from the left, the movements of this work are fluid and responsive. A highlight in this work is the woodgrain pattern spilling in from the bottom left corner in deep reds and crisp whites, which dissolves into a commanding mustard yellow. Moments like these express a just-right-ness that is difficult to explain intellectually and is only truly experienced in the presence of the painting.
In practical terms, 18:43a is the most ambitious of the paintings in the exhibition, both due to its scale and Bull’s novel use of the diptych format. Large swaths of this linen are occupied by sweeping tail forms, the uncoiled spirals of Bull’s gestural alphabet. Along with a gentler palette than is customary, these tender forms lend to the work's overall silky and sedate atmosphere. In the center of the painting, Bull has inserted a bird-like form, mirrored on either side of the crevice, stitching the two panels together. It’s a knowing nod to the condition of this extraordinarily wide format. Things accumulate in the lower section of the left panel. The atmosphere of the painting densifies and becomes almost undifferentiated. The textures and marks fuse into tightly bound masses. Momentum seems to halt in this tangled area, unbothered by the airy currents in the upper portion of the panel. In the right panel, the dense entanglement gives way to an arch of rhythmic coils. In the upper section, the bound coils relax and untangle into leafy aerodynamic streams. The overall directionality of the right panel is more freeform, giving the right half of the picture a weight counterposed only by the spate of greens and reds on the left side of the left panel.
Contrasting 18:43a’s oceanic immensity, Gloam foregrounds a tactility of marks, with the candy-apple-reds appearing to sit above the surface of the canvas. There is a greater sense of frenetic energy in this painting, a greater entropic, eruptive inner dynamic. Where 18:43a is introspective and serene, this painting is artificial, sticky, and highly kinetic. It radiates with brilliant electricity. Deep blue underpainting catapults the translucent pinks, oranges, reds, and greens to the surface. The picture seems to emerge here all at once, rather than unfold bit by bit.
Bull titled this exhibition Venus World, after the sign above the entrance to her new California studio, a leftover from the bridal shop that preceded her in the building. She often titles her paintings for the times at which they were completed, if not for other fleeting phrases or neologisms that enter her periphery. There is a nonchalance in these strategies congruent with the spirit of her painterly improvisation. There is an openness to experience that contains an impulse toward making meaning. The automatism of Surrealism is an appropriate guidepost for grasping this comportment. The paintings take it into their own realm. They are not psychoanalytic but aesthetic. What they strive to grasp is a slippery thing. The only thing that can be written about them with any precision is their formal objectivity. Anything more than that quickly devolves into projections. They are dependent on the immediate experience of the viewer. The essence of their composition and the register at which they operate is supra-sensuous. It is irreducible to the effects of light upon the retina. It is irreducible to intellectual dissection. It is aesthetic, and remarkably so.