The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

All Issues
MAR 2019 Issue

Lesley Vance

Lesley Vance, Untitled, 2019. Oil on linen, 19 x 23 inches. Courtesy Bortolami, New York.

On View
March 1 – April 20, 2019

Lesley Vance swirls her powerful colors over the canvas until she dominates the entire surface. Horror vacui or will-to power? Probably equal doses of both, but the utter assertiveness of her ribbons of color in these nine oils on canvas mark her as a conquistador. Enfolded in this desire to dominate painterly space is a sexual component, but a sexuality that sets Vance apart from the covert sexuality found, say, in Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings or Turner's river views, images that set off the Freudian sex detectors hidden in all of us. The erotic in a painting like Untitled (2019) is overt, not coy. A furious, folded yellow enfolds an equally potent, very phallic green shape, but the painting begs the question: how can abstraction attain this level of eroticism?

Lesley Vance, Untitled, 2019. Oil on linen, 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy Bortolami, New York.

This sensual energy may ultimately derive from an unlikely source: landscape painting. Transforming nature into art is an act of will, the imposition of order on chaos. But the act of creating harmony out of disorder is fraught with danger: by idealizing nature we engage in an idolatry that renders nature a function of our subjectivity. Narcissus' reflecting pool written large is nature itself, the contemplation of which is a bewitching auto-eroticism. Untitled (2019), a 19 × 23 painting, is a landscape metamorphosed into an erotic looking glass. Here Vance incorporates a series of dots reminiscent of musical notes, and this music in turn links her landscape to the pastoral tradition. Her scattered notes evoke related ideas like synchronization, rhythm, and time, ultimately leading to Poussin's melancholy Et in Arcadia Ego. This dark side of eroticism, its link to death, manifests itself in Untitled (2019), a large 36 × 28 piece where Vance's sensuous swirls surround blackness.

So Vance's exuberance, while strongly erotic, is also utopian in that it expresses a longing for a world of passion free of time. Attainable only in the Arcadia of the work of art, this Never-Never Land can only express itself in terms of negation. Thus Untitled (2019) [LV8904] reduces the wide swirls of her other painting to conflicting, abbreviated gestures, a dramatization of Vance's struggle to transform the empty canvas into her own territory.

Two other paintings, Untitled (2019) and Untitled (2019) confirm Vance's aggressive dominion over the canvas. In the former her orange ribbon delicately threads its way around a white structure, subtly but surely tying it down. In the latter, the orange ribbon becomes vectors of force riveting the structure, controlling it absolutely. In nine modestly sized paintings Lesley Vance performs a ritual of artistic power: there can be no question about who the boss is.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

All Issues