New York Times

February 23rd, 2007
Pia Fries


“Facture” is one of those $10 art words you encounter after mastering terms like “composition,” “hue” and “value.” It refers to the process of making and, more specifically, the handling of a painting’s surface. Facture is what comes to mind when looking at Pia Fries’s work.

Ms. Fries’s paintings blur the distinction between painting and sculptural relief. The canvases here — a gallery release describes the show as a “single work” made up of “8 paintings in 11 parts” — are like topographical maps. Fat ribbons and pools of diluted oil paint and globs of pigment the size of softballs are laid down next to faux-painted elements: big, generous brushstrokes Ms. Fries has photographed and silkscreened onto the canvas. 

The pairing of actual painted marks with trompe l’oeil ones harks back to the Modernist trickery of Braque and Picasso, or Duchamp’s last painting on canvas, “Tu m’.” Albert Oehlen, a contemporary German painter (Ms. Fries is Swiss), also employs this dual strategy.

The other subject that has occupied Ms. Fries lately is the work of a Dutch naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who traveled with her daughter to Suriname and documented the plants and insects there. Her text and illustrations were published posthumously in a book titled “Flowers, Butterflies and Insects.” Silkscreened images of and from the book are nestled amid Ms. Fries’s own painted gestures.

The obvious question raised by this juxtaposition is how a dead Dutch naturalist plays into the conversation of contemporary painting and Ms. Fries’s obsession with facture. The two elements, Miss Merian’s classic illustrations and Ms. Fries’s exuberant, pastry-chef-like applications of paint, don’t hang together particularly well, either visually or conceptually. Nonetheless, Ms. Fries is one of the most intrepid handlers of paint today, an artist seemingly undaunted by the forbidding prospect of a blank canvas.