The Labor-Intensive Art of Neysa Grassi

What metaphors lurk within natural processes—what dreadful, mythic allegories? These are the thoughts I contemplate when looking deeply at the work of Neysa Grassi. Born in Philadelphia in 1951, Grassi is geographically and generationally separated from the two traditions with which I feel her paintings most closely converse—Color Field Painting and Dansaekhwa. Like Color Field artists, Grassi creates surfaces that defy their own purpose; rather than acting as objects to be gazed at, they open up like portals, inviting our minds to go beyond what the eyes see. Like Dansaekhwa artists, Grassi acquiesces to the powers and forces of nature, exploring their repetitive, evolutionary processes, and ultimately mimicking their opulent, lustrous, fantastical, yet earthbound visual language. Grassi combines these traditions with a sense of simplicity and ease. She has built up an unpretentious body of work that conveys confidence, invites transcendence, and is also corporeal, and simply composed of good pictures that make people want to be around them. She has said her goal is to be “moving toward a presentation of colors that have no names, that have not yet been named.” She achieves that, as well as she achieves moving toward textures not yet felt. Her works remind me of my first time seeing an oil slick in a puddle, my first time watching ice accumulating on a window pane, or my first time staring deeply at aging skin. They remind me of time; of processes; of my own connection to the physical world.

The Labor-Intensive Art of Neysa Grassi

Becoming What Is

Grassi works several different surfaces and uses a range of different mediums. Medium specificity is important to her work, as she lets the graphite, the gums, and the paints express their given nature. What is also essential to the work is a sense of surface specificity—the idea that rather than covering a surface with medium, Grassi labors to coax out of the surface its true nature. How can that be? How can a painter cover a surface while also revealing it? That is the riddle I wonder about when looking at these paintings, especially those painted on wood panel. For example, Silver Lake (2012-2014); as the name evokes, the colors of this painting are luminous and haunting. They remind me of a light fog rolling in over a pond in a forest at night, moonlight shimmering through the mist.


museum and gallery art exhibition by american artist neysa grassiNeysa Grassi - Untitled (5), 2004, Gouache and oil on monotype, 9 × 9 in, 22.9 × 22.9 cm, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Amazingly, the colors radiate from the surface as much as they pull my gaze in toward some unknown depth. It is the surface of the wood that keeps pulling me back to what is plainly before my eyes. The wood grain is not in the background, it is not in the foreground, and it does not seem to be supporting the image. It looks almost as if the paint is a holographic presence between my eyes and the wood. I am stuck thinking about the rings that whisper the age of a tree; the relationship between the land, the water, the forest and the sky; and the processes that bring them all together. Grassi has achieved this balance through a lengthy, methodical process of adding layers, sanding them off, adding more layers, scraping them off, and adding still more layers. By blending, reworking, building and deconstructing she engages in mimesis—conveying the truth of something without copying it. Surface specificity becomes an abstract message for me to unravel over time.


museum exhibition by american artist neysa grassi who was born in 1951Neysa Grassi - Untitled (6), 2004, Gouache and oil on monotype, 9 × 9 in, 22.9 × 22.9 cm, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


The Hand of the Artistic

Like her works on panel, the works on linen Grassi paints also maintain a sense of their surface attitude. The wood is more evocative to me, because I connect its source to the feeling I get from the paintings. Meanwhile, quite different in their nature and substance from from both her works on wood and linen, are the works on paper Grassi creates. These works present themselves more as pictures, meaning they invite me to look at them rather then pulling my eye, and my mind, through them. Take for example Untitled (Florence) (1997). A serene cloud of ochre hues amasses behind an amorphous, brain-like, biomorphic entity—part form, part pattern. A certain liveliness is obvious here, as if something is in the process of becoming something else. The image is abstract and inviting. But it is different in its nature than the paintings. What that difference is has something to do with feeling as though I am looking at one part of something versus feeling as though I am looking at its entirety.


neysa grassi exhibition at the pennsylvania academy of the fine artsNeysa Grassi - Untitled, Florence 005, 2003, Gouache and gum Arabic on paper, 8 × 7 1/2 in, 20.3 × 19.1 cm, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


The paintings offer me the feeling that I am catching a glimpse at a larger world, into which I am compelled to step wholeheartedly. I am transported by them, or they allow me somehow to feel like I have transported myself. The works on paper give me a different sort of feeling—like I am seeing the whole picture. I am able to contemplate them as objects—to enter into a formal conversation with them, in which their physical properties are more clear. In a way, they take the pressure off. I am not always up for a mystical experience, or a transcendental one. Sometimes I want to admire something rather than being a part of it. It is remarkable to me that Grassi is capable of instigating both sensations. With her paintings she offers me a chance to delve into the metaphysical—to search inside myself, using her paintings as an intermediary between the corporeal and spiritual worlds. At the same time, with her works on paper she gives me what a Dansaekhwa painting, or a frozen pond, or an accumulation of moss on a fallen tree might—a glimpse of something purely physical. This I can analyze, enjoy, and think deeply about, yet it comforts me with the feeling that things are not as complicated as I sometimes think, because I am really just part of the natural world.


neysa grassi at the pennsylvania academy of the fine artsNeysa Grassi - Untitled (Philadelphia), 2009, Gouache and ink on paper, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



Featured image: Neysa Grassi - Untitled, Philadelphia Cathedral 002, 2004, Gouache and gum Arabic on paper, 15 × 14 1/2 in, 38.1 × 36.8 cm, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

All images used for illustrative purposes only

By Phillip Barcio