For sheer optical impact generated by an abstract painting, Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, is hard to beat. Photographs fail to capture the buzzing sensation behind one’s eyeballs when standing in front of the 18-by-8-foot canvas, whose rich red field is punctuated with the Abstract Expressionist’s signature vertical “zips.” And while Newman’s heavy, metaphorical language hasn’t withstood the test of time, his perceptual legacy is evergreen: artists from Op art to Scottish bad boy Jim Lambie’s psychedelic neon-tape floor patterns have attempted new ways to trick viewers’ eyes.
The best of Cornelia Thomsen’s “Stripes” series — the stronger half of “Stripes and Structures,” her debut show at Leslie Feely, open through October 25 — deliver a similarly dizzying punch up close. In these works, myriad vertical bands of blue and gold hues overlap across the canvas. Some stripes have crisp edges, while others are blurred; the fuzzy lines suggest roundness, causing the eye to jump. The artist began the series by attempting to paint beachy horizons, and retains the sand-and-surf palette and horizontal strokes. (She rotates her paintings 90 degrees when finished.) Her choice of relatively small canvases and a diptych format, however, leave all but the largest works with the hopeless appearance of upholstery when viewed more than a few feet back.
Thomsen, born in 1970 in the former East Germany, trained first as a ceramics painter and is known for her precision. “Structures,” a series of ink-on-paper works composed of many fastidiously executed hatch marks, exemplifies a different, more personal control. Hung close together, Structures No. 11, 15, and 12, all 2011, create a striking group. Each work exhibits a different kind of mark making, from tiny dots to longer dashes. The resulting 12-by-12-inch compositions read as overall gray fields in three subtly different saturations, testifying to Thomsen’s steady hand and perceptual acuity.
A version of this article appears in the January 2015 issue of Modern Painters magazine.