Alexi Worth brings together processes many observers have regarded as ill matched in order to arrive at something new: drawing (which is the basis of all his work), stencils, and airbrush. He has depicted figures in a believable space and also portrayed shadows; silhouettes in an indeterminate, abstract space; smoke; crumpled sheets of paper; solid surfaces (such as the top of a lectern); and transparent objects (such as a wine glass). Over the years he has developed a number of recurring motifs, most often returning to the image of two different hands holding wine glasses. He has gone from multiple silhouettes demonstrating at a political rally to close-up views of a hand holding a lens cap. In 2008, after painting on canvas, he began to paint on mesh. He has tended to work with a muted color palette and paint tonally. It is apparent from all of his changes and decisions that Worth is engaged by formal issues, such as the relationship of figure, shadow, and silhouette; sequence and still-image; realism and abstraction.
While I have seen a number of his shows, I often felt that something was off in his work, though I cannot say what seemed to be missing. All my misgivings left me when I saw his recent exhibition, Alexi Worth: Nearness, at DC Moore Gallery (January 7–February 12, 2022). While the motif he used in most of the paintings was familiar — a close-up, tightly cropped views of a hand (or hands) holding a wine glass (or was it two?) — a number of aspects were different. The discrepancies in these paintings convinced me that Worth had made a breakthrough and reached a new place that was sufficiently and interestingly different from what he had done before.
The first, most obvious change was in scale. These paintings of hands are larger than any of the earlier ones that I have seen. While enlarging the scale does not mean the work will be stronger — and many times it isn’t — these paintings held my attention in new ways. For one thing, they seem to play out differently in time. In paintings such as “Seesaw” (2020), “Tilt” (2021), and “Ladder” (2022), we see hands lifting the wine glass to or moving it from an unseen mouth captured in a series of overlaid images. What are these paintings of a solitary, seemingly isolated individual drinking supposed to mean?
The vertical orientation of the paintings — “Ladder” measures 82 x 46 inches — slowed down my looking. The large scale of these paintings also underscores two distinct viewpoints: observing from a distance and scrutinizing the porous surface up close. With his earlier mesh paintings, viewers saw the painted image and the porous surface from the same viewpoint. The radically divergent viewpoints add to the viewer’s experience and should compel them to reconsider what they are looking at.
The new paintings come across as fictive and metaphorical, rather than literal. By moving away from literal representation, Worth enters another realm of possibility. Looking at these works, I loved the experience of both knowing what I was seeing and realizing that maybe I was mistaken, and that I needed to look again. That second, longer look is what I think Worth has been after all along, and what he has attained here. In some of the earlier work, I felt that drive to slow down the looking resulted in devising a solution that seemed forced or almost didactic, like a shadow overlaying a different body or multiple contour lines to suggest movement.
In these paintings, the curving surface of the wine glass as well as the base add the possibility of distortion into the work; a feeling of instability spreads through it. That double take allows viewers to look closer and begin dissembling the painting in order to understand what is being looked at. The paintings depicting the hand holding and tilting the wine glass are sophisticated, smart, and cinematic. They are both straightforward and oblique. Well known for his reviews and essays, in these paintings Worth attains the intellectual resonance he has ascribed to some of the artists he has written about, most notably Richard Artschwager. What they share is a sense that we are witnessing something that is both ordinary and disquieting.
This feeling of disquiet is underscored by the painting, “Expresso” (2021), Worth’s deeply moving homage to Elizabeth Murray. In “Expresso,” with its palette of black and washed out-orange, he depicts a broken espresso cup, the break calling to mind a lightning bolt. One thing that has always struck me about Murray’s paintings of broken coffee cups and spilling liquids is how much domestic turmoil they evoke, and how often reviewers tended to focus on the cartoony side of the work, rather than what may be the deeper subject. By working with a limited, decidedly non-Murray palette, Worth shifts our attention to the broken form.
“Expresso” is in a smaller gallery, separate from the wine glass paintings. And yet, it seems to me there is a dialogue between his homage to Murray and the other paintings, related to frustration, anger, a sense of solitude — all conditions that have become more commonplace and more unnerving since the beginning of the global pandemic. What I think is so beautiful and moving about this exhibition is that Worth’s recent paintings are deeply felt views that could represent anyone’s biography. And yet, if COVID-19 was one of their motivating forces, Worth never announces it, never makes it something we need to know in order to appreciate these works.
Alexi Worth: Nearness continues at DC Moore (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 12.