Maxwell Hendler's Rich Resin
Maxwell Hendler's monochromatic paintings, on view at Texas Gallery, are riveting. There's something almost primal in the appeal of his gleaming layers of rich color, achieved by pouring layers of colored resin over wooden panels. The resin Hendler uses is a highly unnatural material, the gorgeous, toxic stuff used to make surfboards. But his art hits you in a place that isn't about superficiality or stylishness. Yes, the work is glossy and, yes, it feels hip, but those are side effects. K'Sa (2002) has the color and sheen of a just-rinsed black plum. Fauve (2004) has the shiny pale-yellow surface of warm butter. Their colors suck you in. You want to touch these paintings, or maybe even lick them.
The elements of Hendler's work are simple and straightforward — resin with a wood support — but the effect is not. Neither is the process of creating it. I don't know the specifics of the stuff Hendler is using, but if you've ever gotten craftsy and picked up two-part resin at the art supply store, you'll appreciate the magnitude of what Hendler has achieved. With two-part resin, a chemical reaction takes place when the resin is mixed with the catalyst; it's then poured over something or dumped into a mold. Too much catalyst, and it can fracture or, some say, explode. Too little, and it's a sticky, reeking mass.
Even if you mix it right, bubbles usually form in the surface. You are supposed to get rid of these with a blow torch while not setting your studio on fire. Still, that's the easy part. Getting the surfaces as perfect as Hendler's is something else entirely. Reportedly, a lot of his works don't make the cut, and the ones that do can take up to two months of wet sanding to achieve their glass-like finishes.
There's a lot of chromatic magic going on in Hendler's paintings. If you look at the sides of the pieces, you can read the strata of the resin and get a glimpse into the artist's process. Sometimes, as in the butter-yellow work, it looks like a single pour of one gleaming, opaque color. But in the large black plum-colored painting, there looks to be a layer of a lighter, opaque blue followed by a layer of dark, translucent blue-black. The light scatters through the translucent layer, hits the opaque one and bounces back to the viewer. It gives the work depth, making it like looking through colored water to the bottom of a pool. The darkest works are best viewed from an angle; seen head-on, they reflect the viewer.
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Civility (2008) is an amped-up jade-green. Sweetwater (2006) has a faint celadon tinge, the pale-greenish translucent layer poured over a white one. The color is like the glaze on a thousand-year-old Chinese vase. Embrace Me (2008) is a delicate china-doll pink, and Love's Attire (2005) a translucent fuchsia over white. Favorito (2003) is a glorious turquoise.
Perfectly Normal (2009) is the only one I didn't especially like. The work has a dark, crazed-looking surface showing through a pour of translucent, chestnut brown. It looks as if maybe there's a layer of rice paper or something below the final layer of resin. (In some past works, Hendler has allowed the grain of the wood panel to show through.) I don't know what the effect is, but in the context of the other paintings, it disrupted the clean, unadulterated planes of color I had been enjoying.
The show is really nicely hung, with squares and rectangles of various sizes and colors spaced out along the gallery walls — they read like a sculptural installation. And the size changes and variations of warm, cool, pale, bright colors give the large gallery a kind of musical vibe; it's like they are pulsating with sound.
There is a lot of monochromatic work out there — some great, some not so great, some knocked out for decorators. The 74-year-old, California-based, Houston-raised Hendler has been making this kind of work since 1990. His paintings are marvelous slices of color and beautifully crafted, but they aren't so slick they feel manufactured; you can see tiny flaws and smudges on the sides of those perfect planes. It keeps them human, a record of the obsessive labor that goes into them. I love the idea of sticking such enticing slabs of pure color on the wall.
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