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Issue 215

Grace Weaver’s Portraits of Urban Anxiety

At James Cohan, New York, a suite of new paintings harken back to the chaotic pre-COVID streets

BY Daniel Penny in Reviews , US Reviews | 15 SEP 20

There is something darkly funny about the world of artist Grace Weaver. In her latest show at James Cohan, ‘STEPS’, New York’s streets and subway stations are scenes of calamity and salacious exposure. Unwitting passersby crash into one another, step on each other’s feet and grovel before the viewer in compositions that are at once off-putting and difficult to resist. Their concisely sketched expressions – either blank, hostile or lugubrious – convey an awareness of being watched. The angst and self-absorption of a certain kind of millennial woman have been a subject of Weaver’s work for years, but in ‘STEPS’ she looks outward, presenting moments of unwanted contact. The drawings and paintings on view are rich with a menace and mutual suspicion that feels perfectly apt for a world gripped by fear of a communicable disease.

Grace Weaver
Grace Weaver, Transfer, 2020, oil on canvas, 241 × 226 cm. Courtesy: the artist and James Cohan, New York

For viewers familiar with Weaver’s earlier, more illustrative efforts, this show also marks a technical step forward, with a wider array of painterly approaches on display. The figures in these works have become increasingly unmoored from naturalism, their wiggly, loose-limbed bodies composed of geometric volumes reminiscent of Fernand Léger’s tubist period. Weaver has a particularly sharp eye for clothing; she renders blue jeans as rich and metallic and captures the strange bulbousness of a puffer jacket in layers of painstakingly dry-brushed oil paint.

Grace Weaver
Grace Weaver, Confrontation, 2020, oil on canvas, 180 × 175 cm. Courtesy: the artist and James Cohan, New York

Two highlights of the show, ambitious in scale, use synthetic perspective to create disorienting street scenes. Transfer (all works 2020) depicts a set of stairs crowded with people rushing to catch a train – a reminder of the sometimes violent hustle and bustle of city life that now seems like a distant memory. Meanwhile, Intersection, which shows two women attempting to avoid one another on a desolate street, harkens back to the worst months of the pandemic, when everyday interactions with others were charged with danger and even the air seemed poisonous.

Main Image: Grace Weaver, Misstep (detail), 2020, oil on canvas, 175 × 180 cm. Courtesy: the artist and James Cohan, New York

Daniel Penny writes about art and culture at The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing and visual culture at Parsons School of Design.