A Splash of Great Painting 

by Fredric Koeppel
Review of solo exhibition at Second Floor Contemporary in Memphis, TN
from The Commercial Appeal, January 21, 2005

By “great painting,” I mean works that by their combination of physical presence, medium and theme cohere into something memorable; I also mean painting itself, the act and art of it.

At Second Floor, Bishop, who teaches at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, presents five large works, 6-by-6 feet, and 12 small ones, 8.5-by-8.5 inches; all are encaustic (hot wax pigments) on panel. Whatever the size, the pieces focus on slices and slants of life, implied narratives truncated by close-up views, the edges of the painting and the fluidity of emotion.

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of these pieces are stunning. Bishop’s sense of composition has grown more radical and sophisticated over the years, so the manner in which the image fills the plane is disturbing yet satisfying, shaking our equilibrium yet resolving the tension between form and content. More spectacular, however, is the evidence of the sheer joy that the artist derives from the practice of his method, both in application and in his vivid sense of color. Too often contemporary encaustic work feels flimsy, wispy and misty; Bishop’s models draw you in, compelling you to stand inches from the surface, feasting on the texture.

In one of the large paintings, “Untitled (Wish),” a young woman’s blue coat fills the picture like an ocean, while we see her presence at the top only in the whiteness of her bare throat and the curls of blond hair that tumble to her shoulders. In its size and deep color, the coat imposes its weight on the picture as if it were a sentient being; we assume that the absence of the woman’s head in the picture stands for something absent from her life, hence the piece’s title. “Untitled (Wish)” also illustrates Bishop’s elegant understanding of light and its effects, as sunlight and shadow play through the woman’s hair and light touches with a glint the edge of her coat’s black buttons.

We seldom see faces in these works, but one we do see is unforgettable. In the small picture, “Untitled (Missing Lawrence),” a woman’s face, which we see sideways, displays a species of grief that’s almost unspeakable. Bishop has placed the woman in harsh direct light, so her face is drained of color, adding to the bleakness of her expression.

Sometimes it’s a detail that works its way into one’s consciousness. An example is the vibrant red, yellow, pink and white flowered dress worn by a woman seen from the back in “Untitled (Dances);” it seems to take on a life of its own. Another is the slice of townscape seen to the side of a red gloved hand in the small painting “Untitled (Pass),” a construction that resembles a segment of city glimpsed beyond the Virgin in a Renaissance picture.

“Untitled (Pass)” also illustrates a drawback to Bishop’s approach. That picture-filling red glove, held up in the viewer’s face, is cartoonish, something out of Philip Guston’s late work, and it detracts from the ultimate effect of this exhibition, a weird yet necessitating combination of reality and dream.

Bishop manages to envelop even pieces that don’t depict human figures (or parts of them) with the unsettling dream and reality dichotomy. The large picture called “Untitled (Stare)” and the small one titled “Untitled (Exit)” do no more than depict a segment of a side-chair with upholstered seat and back adjacent to, in the first, a white wall, white window frame and shade, and, in the second, a white door. Yet the focus conjures a sense of permanence permeated with uncertainty, which is, after all, the metaphysical basis of life.