Alexander Gray Associates presented A Necessary Elaboration, an exhibition of new work by Joan Semmel (b.1932), in its fifth exhibition with the artist. In paintings made during the last two years, Semmel continued her investigation of the nude self-portrait, in a series of large-scale canvases featuring the artist’s body as volumetric subject realized through expressive brushwork and brilliant color.
Rendered in highly saturated tones, these paintings marked a return to Semmel’s palette of the early 1970s, which comprised vivid color in the rendering of paired bodies in sexual play. Later in that decade, she began employing her own body–alone or with a partner–in compositions that introduced her work into the tradition of self-portraiture, which has remained a steady theme throughout her career in the four decades since. Long associated with the representation of female sexuality, Semmel positions these latest paintings in direct relation to her well-known works of the 1970s and 80s, but with a very specific inflection. At this later stage in life, she says, “You’re still dealing with sexuality but it’s not about seduction… The colors are the seduction here.”
In this new series, the single figure fills the frame in a manner that echoes the in-camera cropping of the photographs the artist takes as the basis for her compositions. In Knee Up (2017) and Fleshed Out (2018), for example, the twisting midsection of the body moves toward abstraction through an emphasis on lines and curves. In In the Green (2017), in which the artist’s face also appears within the frame, her limbs map a division of the picture plane into areas illuminated by blocks of vibrant background hues.
Semmel’s paintings evidence a confidence in color and form. Seated in Red (2018), for one, employs a limited palette and symmetrical composition to create an elegantly meditative form. Semmel’s brushwork makes a second link back to her early career, connecting these paintings to her engagement with Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s. In some areas more gestural with expressive color combinations, while in others more uniform, the paintings’ surfaces serve as varied geographies comprised of a range of painting techniques, including smoother and more textured strokes, as well as washes, and drips. Writing in 2015, Semmel reflected, “The issues of the body from desire to aging, as well as those of identity and cultural imprinting, have been at the core of my concerns. The carnal nature of paint has seemed to me a perfect metaphor, the specifics of image, a necessary elaboration.”