Day by Day
Stein by Alexis
Michel Alexis at Elga Wimmer Gallery
Michel Alexis’s new paintings are inspired by Gertrude Stein’s Birthday Book, a point that is made clear by the written material announcing and supporting the exhibition at Elga Wimmer Gallery through March 1. This is fortunate since looking at the paintings themselves, the specific source is not readily apparent, nor essential to know.
Taken at face value, these are quite beautiful abstract paintings with luscious surfaces so subtle that photographs cannot do them justice. They are a visual treat first, and Alexis, who has been inspired before by Stein, has picked the perfect Stein text to work from to achieve this effect. Often Stein’s writing is characterized as a verbal equivalent of abstract painting. Donald Gallup, the Birthday Book’s editor in the Yale University edition of Stein’s uncollected writings, calls it “a decorative work…an exercise with words.” Alexis’ paintings are also decorative, or formal if decorative sounds pejorative, exercises within the vocabulary of painting.
At the literal base of Alexis’ canvases, there is Stein’s text. Alexis has stenciled it onto a hard surface, and then rubbed the canvas against it to pick up the ghost of the words. Next the canvas is covered with sheets of paper and gesso, further obscuring the frottaged text, but at the same time keeping “the notion of writing to the fore,” as Barry Schwabsky points out in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition which traveled from the University of Denver to the Elga Wimmer Gallery. In most cases, the text is unreadable—as some critics of Stein’s writing suggests hers is.
On the surface of this grid, Alexis paints and draws, sometimes ripping and crinkling the paper, adding a texture to the surface, or scarring it as a knife slicing flesh, skin. Alexis’s line is like automatic writing, looping over the compositional plane and sometimes extending beyond it.
Within the abstraction appear clues to meaning, fragments of a narrative that has been dispensed with as the innovative Stein did. There is an elegantly curvilinear R in FEBRUARY 8, 1996; blue and white stripes that somehow recall wallpaper in NOVEMBER 3, 1996, or perhaps even incised hearts in DECEMBER 17, 1996, but no conventional story is being told.
In these paintings, the Stein references that were more clearly defined in earlier works by Alexis have become subsumed by painterly concerns, echoing Stein’s writing which was more about form than content. The result is a thought-provoking and visually haunting exhibition.