Robin Feld and Elizabeth Reagh at The Painting Center

“Energized,” the title of Robin Feld’s show at The Painting Center, offers her audience the chance to see recent work. Feld lives near Prospect Park in Brooklyn and has spent many hours deriving both inspiration and form from this urban oasis. Her paintings, usually based on photos, acknowledge the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, but they are more than that, being investigations of nature in a nonobjective fashion. The combination of the New York School’s influence and that of the tangle of nature enable her to paint in a very compelling way. It is an attractive mix of the painting as a record of Feld’s actions, but it also is linked to a realism based on external actuality. This gives her work greater depth than that of a mere copy of work done in the middle of the last century. Elizabeth Reagh, now based in California, works very differently. Her indoors, often colorful still-life’s on tables, belong to a different tradition--one might think of the work of Jane Freilicher on seeing Reagh’s art. Reagh is a bold painter of the interior, and her beautifully aligned colors merge like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Together, the marked contrast of Feld, in the front room, and Reagh, in the projects room, make for a memorable exhibition.

Feld’s unusual ease with the brush is evident at once in her painting. She is an artist of exuberance and energy, who emphasizes the brushstroke as a basic unit of expression.  In “Yellow Triangles” (2019), a horizontal line of roughly painted, sometimes incomplete yellow triangles traverses the width of the composition, while all around this raw line of recognizable geometry is a field of gray, light mauve, red, and black passages--splotches and blots. But the explosion of colors never becomes a mere riot of hues--Feld’s control over the general scene holds together what might have been too complicated a painting. “Big Mouth” (2019), another freely gestural painting, is composed of inchoate blotches of color, with a rough, reddish upward curve centered in the painting. Beneath this suggestion of a smile are a group of unregulated reddish blots, while a sky blue is dominant above. If we take the title to heart, there is a certain humor to the theme. But Feld never loses sight of the outdoor world in these works of art. Finally, in “Sky Forest” (2021), the artist takes advantage of her backdoor urban wilderness to develop a typically baroque presentation of bright blue on the far right, passages of light mauve in the middle, and a bit of light orange on the top left. This is a particularly strong painting; the colors play and meld in a successful fashion. The forest and sky--their essence--are beautifully suggested, while the color blue serves for the sky just as it is.

In the gallery’s project room, there is the work of Elizabeth Reagh. She has returned to her native California after a stay in New York. This group of paintings, concentrating on the still life, beautifully captures the flowers and the warm interiors in which they exist. The colors match each other exquisitely, as do the forms, which build a believable reality. In “Mary Jo Stole Some Flowers for Me” (2020), Reagh captures the warm light of the West Coast, with the sun traveling through a window onto the flowers, which are red and white and interspersed with green leafing. The table on which the flowers sit is gray; a small, colorful page of one of the artist’s studies enlightens the slightly somber tone belonging to the table. The backyard of the house has a high reddish-brown fence, which contrasts nicely with the luminous aura of the light. “Spring Still Life” (2021) is a beautiful study dominated by a window out onto a backyard of brilliant green grass, while inside, a patterned tablecloth, of various colors but mostly red, takes over the lower half of the scene. The color of the grass is so bright as to seem nearly electric, while the complexity of the indoors side of the window is handled very well--on the windowsill is a green box of coffee filters, while on the far right two red tulips with yellow interiors stand, their long, slender stems deep in a slender flute of a vase.

Both Feld and Reagh are highly proficient and gracefully lyrical painters. Both should be recognized for their skill. This show is particularly attractive as a showcase for two very different painting styles. It would be easy to emphasize the differences between the predilections of California and New York, but that would be an oversimplification. What really comes through is the two women painter’s adherence to their craft and their love of color. Feld and Reagh might both be called traditional artists, but in their case, this does not describe any weakness. Instead, it proves that in these times, pluralist for decades now, a historically aware approach can be made new and keep our interest--this despite the current command of the avant-garde. While I do not necessarily favor one approach over the other, it is clear that Feld and Reach are independent and lively in their wish to innovate tradition.

-Jonathan Goodman