Jo Messer: Whale Tail

West Barn

July 23-August 27, 2022

The Ranch is pleased to announce Whale Tail, a solo presentation of nine new paintings by Jo Messer (b.1991).

Jo Messer’s paintings summon an ebbing inconstancy, a kind of shapeshifting, where categorical interpretation falls away—and where languid ambiguity rouses a slow burn. At nearly every juncture of her nested compositions, layers of accumulated paint wrestle for dominance in the foreground and background without ever resolving to a single plane.

In this new body of work, sinuous women flash and flicker behind dense skeins on the painting’s surface. While Messer emphasizes certain limbs and gestures (either through heavy brushstrokes or streaks of white), these bodies and their surrounds often evade complete optical apprehension. Rhyming with Gilles Deleuze’s idea that we are “forever unfolding between two folds,” these images induce perception that slips between clarity and fog. Intoxication, in its many meanings, is useful in summarizing this effect—the cognitive delays produced by Messer’s durational process, the captivation with these undulating figures.

The unfolding of both attribution and action is aided by a sensitive investigation of largely monochrome palettes. Here, tonal gradation is a webbing which girdles the instability stirred by interloping corporal arrangements, concurrent spatial planes, and competing temporal registers. Campaigns of translucent white pierce the surface, as if cutting the deep time of the meandering layers with a quickened cadence. The painting’s edge also emerges as a taming force: women are constrained by the dimensions of the canvas, the limit of the surface. The painter’s habitual strokes are likewise acutely perceptive of the edge as they both skirt and tease its decisive lip.

Scrunched and hunched within the bounded edges reside a cohort of women—sometimes in isolation, otherwise in pairs (and possibly single figures in motion as with Duchamp’s stereometric Nude Descending a Staircase). Escaping the mimesis of portraiture, these figures distend and bend as if flesh unburdened by bone. Across several paintings, disproportionately engorged feet jut out from spindly legs. The leitmotif of the foot assumes both compositional and connotative heft. Whereas it literally grounds the image by demarcating the pictorial field, it also proposes a mode of bodily presentation far distant from the traditional nude. Stubby toes and mangled joints are often offered as visual libations in lieu of breast or groin. Yet sensuality otherwise imagined is nonetheless unmissable in the torpid heap of bodies in these paintings. Messer makes this explicit in titling the exhibition “Whale Tail”—a reference to the resurgent trend of hiking a g-string thong above the waistline as overt provocation. No whale tails are to be found in these compositions, but evident are the strains between solicitous performativity and unrehearsed desire.

Essential to this, Messer’s women are not meant to conjure the likeness of either sitter or maker. Indeed, she seldom paints from life and uses reference images (sometimes photos of pin-up girls or stills from pornography) to merely suggest poses or remind how a limb and socket might connect or contort. Another novelty in this grouping are the seafood towers that break into the controlled worlds of female reverie. In Been parched for years (2022), a three-tiered seafood tower serving up crustaceans and oysters on ice is ensnared and guarded by the legs of the central figure. Designed to put food on ostentatious display, the platters channel an exhibitionism akin to the whale tail g-string. The loose narrative, along with the title, implies the women, not merely sentinels, will eventually enjoy these raw delicacies (a postponement of excitations yet to come). Further opening the latent sexual undercurrents of the compositions, these libidinal aphrodisiacs, like the yonic oyster, sound percolating but unquenched pleasure.

And while the body as blurred sexual referent is a dominant interpretation of the artist’s work, the improbable postures—alternatingly overemphatic, claustrophobic, or subdued—act, in part, as compositional anchors. While fractured planes of adumbrated color, line, and shape swirl across the canvas, the women often provide compositional coordinates. In To tell you the truth, my voice has never (2022) and Never lost for words (2022), for example, the women’s ungainly, ecstatic squats form an emphatic X-mark—a trick of academic painting that Messer now implements to cursorily tether her imagery only to forcefully chip away at route legibility.

Curved toes and heaving chests and round topknot buns and scalloped patterns all appear derivations of the artist’s mark making shorthand—an iconography of sorts. These notations recur throughout, nimbly meeting representational mandates or delivering untranslatable abstractions. Such iterative strokes supply reassurances of constancy and glimmers of consummation amid the artist’s roaming retinue of figures as if addressing Baudelaire’s observation of the “immortal need in man for monotony, symmetry.” Yet on the whole, Messer’s works chaff at this immortal need, preferring that anxious thirst of completion deferred.

—Megan Kincaid


Jo Messer (b.1991) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA from the Cooper Union in 2014 and her MFA from Yale University in 2017. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at 56 Henry; New York, and in group exhibitions at Venus over Manhattan, New York; Sprüth Magers, Berlin; Carl Kostyál, Milan; Fredericks & Freiser, New York; Rove Projects, New York; Western Exhibitions, Chicago; and New Release, New York, among other venues.

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