Spencer Sweeny (4 stars)

Spencer Sweeny


There’s less shtick and more confidence in this exhibition of paintings by New York-based artist Spencer Sweeney. The freewheeling, almost accidental approach to image-making that the artist employed in his previous exhibition in the space two years ago has now solidified into a more measured and composed method. That is not to say that the images are not as compositionally dynamic, but that the confidence the artist gleaned from his involvement in the Whitney Biennale now seems to have found its way into the canvases.

Many of the works are still crammed with Spencer’s usual phallic images (bananas, the Eiffel Tower, long jabbing tongues), but these are used as marks on the surface rather than empty representational glyphs, and paint itself has become more important in his work.

It’s difficult to refer to individual pieces (all the paintings are ‘Untitled’) so one can only describe the compositional elements within the frames. In the main gallery space, two similarly-sized canvases can be read as a diptych of sorts: both share the banana/tongue U-shape, and are smeared in acid colours of pink, yellow, and green. The canvases can be read as warped portraits, with baby pink ovoid and black abysses that can be translated into heads, mouths and eyes. Text creeps into one image while mini rainbows in various states of angular manipulation hold the ‘features’ of one of the faces together like psychedelic veins of light.

The greatest success is the large painting that faces this pair (pictured), where 80 years of American painting are bought together with a cheeky outpouring of gestures that is reminiscent of Frank Stella’s approach in the 80s. Three squares of red, blue and yellow form the foundational core of the work, a nod to European Modernism, which is erased with a purple scribble and a solid black cloud of paint – crude signifiers of American Abstract Expressionism. This painting, like his best work, is humorous and tough: a giggling brute.

Spencer Sweeney: Monads and Party Paintings

New paintings by the New York-based artist.

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