Emotional Intelligence

Polina Berlin Gallery
165 East 64th Street
New York
Upper East Side
Feb 22nd — Apr 24th

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Truth be told, I don’t spend a lot of time in Chelsea galleries anymore. Their yawning corridors and placeless blue-chip austerity do little for my aesthetic sense. I’m left hungry for intimacy and elbows around an artwork, for spaces crowded with people and time. Leave a little room for the Holy Ghost, sure, but not too much—lest we catch a chill.

Having left Chelsea recently for the Upper East Side, perhaps Polina Berlin feels the same. She’s opened Polina Berlin Gallery in what was once the parlor room of an 1899 townhouse on a leafy residential side street in Lenox Hill. Defined by a worn marble fireplace and dark hardwood floors, the gallery opens into an overgrown garden that bathes the space in natural light. The venerable atmosphere makes her inaugural group exhibition, “Emotional Intelligence,” feel especially young, intimate and open. Some titles are undecided, arguably many pieces too, as these paintings by 10 artists aim to find a new center between abstraction and figuration, dream and reality and, more largely, the old and the new.

The conversation held between these works is respectful, if not whisper soft. All but one is rendered in oil, and they’re overwhelmingly pastel in palette, oneiric in tone, precise in curation. The breasts, bombs and skulls juggled by Justine Neuberger’s carnivalesque sprite (Moodmaker, 2022) make small talk with Loie Hollowell’s biomorphic bodyscapes and very title of her painting across the room (Juggling act, 2021). Aside from the primary abstractions of Alison Peery or Tamo Jugeli, or Markeidric Walker’s not-yet-titled take on nighthawks (Waffle House, 2020), these largely female artists exchange pages from Surrealists and Symbolists alike: Marc Chagall to Hilma af Klint to Leonora Carrington. And I can almost smell Lucian Freud’s signature Cremnitz White paint in Hanae Moreno-Niimi’s self-portrait gazing askance over the mantelpiece. Although these are young paintings by young painters, their penchant for brooding umbers and lament yellows presents age.

You might recognize some of them from other artist-run or time-worn townhouse galleries that pepper the boroughs. Jo Messer is represented by the shoebox 56 Henry in Chinatown and Neuberger presented an absorbing solo exhibition at my favorite “apartment” gallery in the city, Brooklyn’s 15 Orient, whose peeling pink carpet still grips my heart. Shannon Cartier Lucy is undoubtedly the most notable of the group at Berlin, her star having risen dramatically following two landmark solo exhibitions at Lubov in 2020 and 2021. Her work joins a new generation of figurative painters that—like Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Richter before them—once again negotiates painting against photography. Lucy’s narratives are more personal than historical; rather, more American. Her images draw upon a family’s history with schizophrenia and Tennessee, plus a consistent captivation with waterfowl. Her ribbons, titles and misplaced objects push the mundane into madness, and she has a talent for visual turns and poetry; indeed, the excessive adjective of “GORGEOUS” on a wet umbrella slips us just over the edge.

Three-quarters of these artists were born in the early ’90s, so their driving influences are still near the surface: Joan Mitchell elbows into Carrie Rudd’s Jewels Buoying in the Yelping Gastric Acid (2022) and Cecily Brown fuzzes under Jo Messer’s Weathering whether without you (2022). This is also true of the older artists like Brice Guilbert, a French-Creole painter and musician who grew up on Réunion, an island off the southern coast of Africa. Guilbert’s four paintings are all titled Fournez, after Réunion’s highly active volcano. Rendered in oil stick, these are the artist’s childhood memories of the Piton de la Fournaise erupting at various times of day. Dramatically angled, with a vanishing point lost to the scuffle of elements and atmosphere, the composition is almost identical to J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844). Yet where Turner presented a meeting of natural and technological sublimes, Guilbert returns us solely to awe with the fury and frenzy of earth’s wanton motion.

Standing over an inoperable fireplace, under a century’s worth of smoke muffled by white wash, I enjoyed the warmth of Berlin’s new gallery. The paintings around me shifted subtly beneath the sunlight’s play—torrid on that early spring afternoon. People shuffled in and out, sharing news of the protests in midtown, pictures of a distant place erupting. Like the budding world outside, these young artists may seem unsure and already weathered, if only because they’re so attuned to it. —Sadie Rebecca Starnes

Shannon Cartier Lucy, God Is Gorgeous, 2018. Oil on canvas, 28 x 22 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Polina Berlin Gallery