Painters on Paintings Editor Julie Heffernan reflects on three current painting shows in New York City.

Photographs as tools for artmaking are as common and tacit as the pencil, but for many years, when I was young, I believed that painting based on copying photos was the death of creative invention. I thought that because I, myself, was so dependent on them, and knew they had me too much in their thrall. Using a projector was even worse, I thought – nipping in the bud the development of the eye; only purely conceptual artists could get away with it.  Even then, most of those, whether Photo-Realists or Pop artists, seemed to have abdicated some important aspect of their own potential as creative weirdos, the kind of peculiar inventiveness that would have been theirs alone, was my belief. In the hands of great artists –Bonnard, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas — the photograph might jumpstart the painting to become something unique and other; otherwise the ghost of the photo often felt too evident, intruding into the final artwork, weakening it with the photograph’s greater technological star power.

It was when artists started telling stories again, in the 80s, that I began to understand how to use the photograph, now as just a tool. How could Eric Fischl tell us all his great adolescent male secrets without them, or Angela Dufresne wade into the goo of her painterly love affairs with Gina Rowlands, or Ellen Harvey mark the transitions of a life using all her driver’s licenses over time? In the hands of an adept, the photograph became as necessary a conceptual and technical tool as the palette knife.

Rather than detracting, that very ghost lurking behind the scrim of the image radically informs the work of several artists showing now in New York. Three artists with NY solo exhibitions that stand out in this capacity are Doron Langberg at Yossi Milo Gallery, Polina Barskaya at Monya Rowe Gallery and Heide Fasnacht at Dorsky Curatorial Projects, opening on September 29. 

Doron Langberg, Daniel Reading, 2019, Oil on linen, 96 x 160 inches

In his work, Doron Langberg slides right past the photograph, using it only to surf the high seas of liquid paint with encrustations of denser matter that together tell stories of friends and family, tales that rupture from within as flagrant paint and shape take over the dictates of resemblance. He uses the ubiquitous family photo to take us into domestic settings where, now, rapture trumps the quotidien, and we are all invited to the scene of seduction.

Polina Barskaya, Vence, 2019, Acrylic on panel, 20 x 24 inches, Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

Polina Barskaya uses the flattening properties of acrylic paint to create dual worlds — interior and exterior. Light and color are harnessed to describe intimate moments that invite you into their whispering intricacies. Interiors groan with dull palettes of gray while some exterior event seen through the window glows with the kind of radiance that only a framework of tertiaries could conjure.

Heide Fasnacht, Mid Ocean Explosion, 2000-2001, Graphite on paper, 22 x 30 inches

And Heide Fasnacht uses the photograph’s function as record keeper to explore phantasms of destruction. The Devil is in the  details, and hers bring home their lessons on what man has wrought. Her fine use of subtle tonality and suggestive touch allow the viewer to feel up close and personal to events whose destructive potential would otherwise overwhelm.