James Little at June Kelly Gallery

This is what you see when you walk in and face the opposite wall. We'll start here for our tour around the gallery


"Gene Davis with points," is how one painter described James Little's new body of work, De-Classified: New Paintings at the June Kelly gallery. He was joking, of course. Davis may be a visual antecedent, along with Barnett Newman and maybe Kenneth Noland, but I'd describe Little's new work as "Geometry with finesse."

Here is an artist who's making hard-edge paintings with a soft material, oil and wax in an encaustic-like mix, and making it work. Over and over again. He has combined lushness of material with preciseness of image. And he's working large. As someone who paints with wax, I can tell you that this combination of hard and soft, in large scale, is no easy achievement.

Continuing around the gallery (I have no info on the first work): Gypsy, 72.5 x 94 inches, and Satchmo's Answer to Truman, 76 x 98 inches; both 2008, oil and wax on canvas

Closer view of both, below

Formally, these resolutely abstract paintings would seem to be about figure and ground, or more precisely about the ambiguity of figure and ground, and thus about the ambiguity of space, and about color and control, flatness and expanse. And certainly about chromatic rhythm. In these paintings, sawtooth elements are placed in side-by-side in discrete segments (occasionally a Davis-like band of stripes changes the visual cadence). As the angles of different colors, sometimes near complementaries, slide into one another, a mirage-like shimmer hovers over the surface. It's in no way Op in the manner of Bridget Riley, but it is retinally invigorating.

Little's paintings are technically virtuosic and visually ravishing . His palette, saturated and opaque, has just a touch of white. It's far from pastel, yet there's an alluring softness to it.

Swoon. .

The show is up at the June Kelly Gallery in SoHo through June 9.

Continuing around from Satchmo's Answer to Truman is Near-Miss, 2008, oil and wax on canvas 72.5 x 94 inches

I was taken by the two framed paintings (not sure of medium) on paper between two larger oil and wax paintings. Beautifully realized, they nevertheless appear to be maquettes or precursors to some of the larger works. I've placed one at the bottom of this post, just under the larger painting it resembles

The Marriage of Western Civilization and the Jungle, with detail below showing the clean lines and luscious surface

We've completed our circuit of the gallery, with the entry at left the the 'V' painting on the right

Below: A small framed painting on paper relates to the large work on the far wall. The large painting is When Aaron Tied Ruth, 2008, oil and wax on canvas, 72.5 x 94 inches

Related reading and looking:
. Ben LaRocco's interview with James in the the current issue of The Brooklyn Rail
. Geoform, an online resource for abstract geometric art.
. Little's own website:
. Updated 7.14.09: James Kalm's video visit to the gallery followed by a studio visit with the artist


Lia said...

Hi, very luscious! Question, when you say oil and was, is the image painted first in oil and then overlayed with a clear or colored was. I also work in encaustics (novice), so would be interested in knowing more about the technique.


Lia said...

oops...fingers too fast typing, meant to say wax, rather than the previous post. sorry.

Stephanie Clayton said...

The hard edges and soft colors create a pleasing contrast.

I am impressed with the technique of using an "encaustic-like" method on canvas. I'd think this would have to be done very carefully to avoid cracking on the flexible support.
I've used a cold wax medium and g-gel with oil on canvas (never tried traditional encaustic) and I was concerned about the paint eventually cracking (it never happened...or at least hasn't yet.)
I'd be interested to know how the artist addresses the potential for cracking. I apologize that I'm ignorant about encaustic, but I thought you couldn't use it on canvas. Apparently you can...?

Joanne Mattera said...

I don't know for sure what/how he's using. I'm reporting with the information available from the gallery checklist. But if we extrapolate from the Brooklyn Rail article--which is a nice, wide-ranging interview that covers a variety of issues--it would seem that he's melting and mixing the oil and wax together.

I want to say something about encaustic and materials here. The point of this post was not to talk about Little's technique--which I know nothing about--but about the esthetics of the work and its formal issues. True, his combination of hard and soft is as a result of the medium he uses,and I find that most appealing, but the how-to is not my concern.

This is one of the reasons I don't write too much about encaustic on this blog. I want to talk about art and ideas, not about what size brush and how much wax and oil. Those are valid questions, of course, but they're for a different forum.

So no more technique questions in this post, everyone, OK?

Eva said...

Well he and I transversing some of the same territory. I'd love to see them up close. Thanks for this.

lisa said...

-his color sings and makes me feel optimistic and that life is good!
thanks for the post- see you next week,

Donna Thomas said...

Swoon, indeed!

tony said...

Sorry to throw a damper on all this but I was sorry to see Riley's device used in this fashion. Whilst I have seen Riley originals it is true that I won't be able to get to see Little's show but from where I sit they seem a very pallid reflection of what the former achieved.

Joanne Mattera said...

No damper. You haven't see these paintings except through the lens of my little camera and then the medium of your monitor, hardly a sufficient basis for cmparison.

tony said...

True Joanne - but the comparison was in the drawing & that is a sufficient base.

Rob said...

Joanne, thanks for covering these great shows in your blog. Your reviews are really educational. As for James' work, it seems very lush at first glance but then I see a lot of tension and conflict. They seem to be a real struggle, both in the making and looking.

Joanne Mattera said...

Tension. Yes! Thanks for that word, Rob. The tension is exquisite.

* said...


Thanks again for pointing me to this show, and for covering it here. I liked these paintings a lot.