“It was impossible not to think about the context of New York when I was making this show,” Los Angeles-based, New Zealand-born painter Emma McIntyre says about her solo exhibition, An echo, a stain, recently on view at David Zwirner. The gallery is blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick, and other storied cultural institutions, and this proximity to works by Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and the Met’s Manet/Degas blockbuster weighed on how she approached making new work.
A committed abstractionist, these Rococo influences are not immediately apparent in the drippy swaths of paint, rust, and diamond dust that cover her canvases. Still, McIntyre’s work makes the argument that a painting can be transportative, even escapist, by means of a coupling of colors or break of gradient. It is the shared journey painters have with their materials, and the enduring pull between figuration and abstraction, that drives her affinity for 19th and 20th-century predecessors.
McIntyre’s paintings often start with pours of oil paint mixed with thinner over a horizontal canvas. “I can move the canvas around,” McIntyre explains, “but really the paint does its own thing. The material effects and chemical reactions are something I can never predict. I don’t use a formula for how I mix things, so it ends up different every time.” A number of works contain oxidized iron that forms after she applies an oxidizing solution to iron-based paint. While the rusting occurs almost instantly, the tonality of the substance—like the blue edges of the blotchy forms in the large-scale “Duets in the dust” (2023)–becomes more vibrant overtime. That state of incompleteness excites her. As the Zwirner exhibition ends and the paintings travel to collections in various locales, their surfaces will reflect these shifts. Those futures are at the front of McIntyre’s mind: “Wherever they go I imagined that they continue to change.”
Growing up in Auckland, the artist moved across the globe in 2019 to settle in Los Angeles. Being surrounded by art making from an early age (the painter, Simon McIntyre, is her father) helped form a rigorous studio practice. Her thinking around making is not, however, tied to the self-contained, mental myopia characteristic of Abstract Expressionism. For McIntyre, a new tube of paint and how the thinned-out color unexpectedly washes across a canvas takes her in the direction of any number of art historical or geographic footnotes. While determinedly abstract, every brushstroke in the artist’s paintings is on the verge of becoming something recognizable.
Zwirner’s 69th street gallery is not a standard white cube but a five-story prewar townhouse. “It is this really rich, decadent architectural space with incredible molding, parquet floors and marble fireplaces” she describes. This required having “to think about how to let the flourishes of the architecture almost finish some of the more decorative aspects of my work.” The bloom-like shapes that appear on “Doth mutation love” (2023) echo the paisley design of the wrought iron baluster of the adjacent staircase. Two small paintings, “Rustlers” (2023) and “Red, she said” (2023) are situated on either side of a gilded fireplace. Their strikingly complementary tones (the former green, the latter red) emphasize their spatial symmetry.
McIntyre works in two scales—large (around 8 by 6 feet) and small (12 x 14 inches). No paintings are in the middle, and this decision developed in her studio, where size ushers a way of working. “At some point, I realized that the medium size was getting confusing,” she recalls. “In terms of determining which way of working I was moving toward.” When asked which takes longer, a small or large painting, McIntyre said it depends. A small canvas can be in her studio for up to six months and can be intermediately returned to. In other instances she will have paint from a larger piece left over on her palette and will try out a new idea on a small one, completing it quickly. Large works are more planned, requiring time to dry between layers. In her words, “In a way, the small works are the fastest and the slowest, with the larger works having a more predictable timeline.”
Both scales move the eye in unexpected ways. At only 12 x 15 inches, “Antipodean fragments” (2023) manages to create visual tension between a violet burst on the left and vertical streaks on the right, and these competing motions stretch the composition out and up. At almost 8 x 6 feet, “Laws of night and honey” (2023) is contrastingly centripetal, with stained curves of black and brown swirling towards the canvas’s center. In short, it is hard to apprehend their size in images alone. “I’ve always been interested in the way that a really small work can hold space like a large work,” McIntyre shares.
A work is complete when McIntyre feels she achieves this goal, although the metrics for that are hard to articulate: “It’s a very bodily feeling” she professes. “You feel it in your gut.” That feeling also comes from the sense that she’s learned something from a painting. Asked about what comes next, after returning from a week-long holiday with her family McIntyre imparted that her strategy for moving forward often involves looking back: “The way that I continue is to take some of the threads from this show that I feel are unresolved or interesting and see where they lead me.”
Written by Maddie Klett