The artists that many critics cite when writing about Alison Hall’s paintings are Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt and Ad Reinhardt. Hall is one of the few contemporary abstract painters I know whose very formal paintings do not diminish in the company of such rigorous ascetics. This is because his slow, mesmerizing, monochromatic works induce an elated state of vision unlike anyone else, including the aforementioned artists. Working within established boundaries, which she set early in her career, Hall continues to find ways to bring willing viewers closer together, encouraging them to get lost in the search and reflect on that experience. This is one of the reasons why I continued to follow his work.
His current exhibition, Alison Hall: cold and meanin a new Chinatown project space opened by SOCO Gallery (May 20 to June 30), presents 14 paintings divided into two groups: a suite of 11 intimate-scale ultramarine paintings collectively titled A ballad, and four black paintings of three different sizes. The palette and the grid of these two groups come respectively from the ceiling and the floor of Giotto’s Arena (Scrovegni) chapel in Padua (c. 1305), which the artist has visited every year for more than 20 years.
The paintings in A ballad measure 9 1/2 by 7 1/2 inches, between the size of a book and a standard sheet of paper. Each contains an irregular rectangle filled with a grid of dots, some of which are drawn as linear stars. The grid and lines defining the stars are meticulously placed. Working in oil and graphite on a plaster surface that has been sanded smooth and flawless, Hall completes the grid point by point, turning some into stars by adding two to three lines. What sets each of the paintings apart is Hall’s grid framing with a thinly applied dark blue band of paint.
Looking at the 11 paintings in this suite, evenly spaced on a wall, I kept thinking about the disorder and partial erasure of the grid caused by the heavy brushstroke, the confidence the artist had in the Mark. Later, when I learned of the bracketed titles Hall gave to each of the paintings (for example, “for the lonely”, “for the unexpected”, and “for this pain in my heart”), I saw the combination of disorder and disruptive brushstrokes. through these sentences.
This turn to the personal was unexpected. At the same time, Hall’s loose brushstroke felt more than personal to me. In 2015, Thomas Micchelli made this observation about Hall’s work: “The artist’s devotion to geometry seems to leave nothing to chance…. In these paintings, Hall introduced an element of chance, as she cannot control how the edges of the brushstroke dissipate as it spreads across the surface. In “A Ballad (for this pain in my heart)” (2022), the color of the dark blue band on the left side changes, becoming a grainy stain. The angled, uneven top edge of the grid is defined by the wide, slightly diagonal brushstroke.
The order implied by the grid of stars is always disturbed or transgressed by the brushstroke. I see this as Hall’s recognition that life encroaches on art. In these paintings, we see precision and imprecision, order and dissipation, changes of tone. Unlike Martin, who claimed to have turned her to the world, and Reinhardt, who believed in a division between art and everything else, Hall seems in these works to be open to the vagaries of everyday life.
On Hall’s black paintings, which are larger than the suite of blue paintings, in one case noticeably, I quote Micchelli again:
The dualities in Hall’s work are simple – color and line; geometry and nebulosity; graphite and paint — but, despite their often asymmetrical relationships, they interact within a network of correspondences where no one element dominates.
The interaction between the graphite dots and the black background constantly changes throughout the painting. The effect is hypnotic. You have to slow down your gaze, shift your attention from the whole to the part. Along the top quarter of “I’ve Been A Fool” (2022), the black background is divided into interlocking scalene triangles composed, alternately, of dark gray orbs, surrounded by graphite dots, and hexagons of dots. There is something maddeningly beautiful about the visual state she achieves in this painting. I kept looking for an underlying motive that would ground everything, but I couldn’t find one. Did I see what was there or was I starting to hallucinate? This state of seeing but not quite knowing suggests a possible explanation for the title of the painting. Or it could be the artist’s commentary on his meticulous dedication to the making of this painting and the degree of painstaking concentration it requires. The seductive geometry of this painting is both stable and moving.
Amid the constant barrage of media images, Hall refuses to accommodate society’s voracious demand for entertainment, distraction, and immediate understanding. She does not attempt to entice the viewer to start looking and – as is the case with her work – to look again, leaving her methodical art to compel viewers to reflect on their experience. This is a rare and commendable position for an artist.
Alison Hall: cold and mean continues at SOCO Gallery (75 East Broadway Street, Unit #203C, Chinatown, Manhattan) through June 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.