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News: REVIEW | Janice Biala’s Epochal Studio    , April 10, 2024 - Jonathan Stevenson for Two Coats of Paint

REVIEW | Janice Biala’s Epochal Studio

April 10, 2024 - Jonathan Stevenson for Two Coats of Paint

Janice Biala, The Studio, 1946, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / A striking feature of the paintings and works on paper of Janice Biala (1903–2000), now on view at Berry Campbell in a show craftily curated by Jason Andrew, is their seamless reconciliation of civilizational clutter and spatial order. Fixing that notion is the earliest painting, The Studio (1946), arraying the artist’s active workspace and establishing her intent to embrace the world through it. (Coincidentally, Vera Iliatova’s “The Drawing Room” at Nathalie Karg gamely recaptures and updates kindred impulses.) Biala’s work here, spanning the immediate postwar period almost to the end of the Cold War and blending the New York School and the School of Paris – she lived in both cities – also bears the considerable weight of twentieth-century history, art and otherwise, with extraordinary grace and weightless cohesion, free of the strain of obvious contrivance.

Janice Biala, Facade Blanche (White Facade), 1948, oil on canvas, 39 x 32 inches

Façade Blanche (White Facade), painted in 1948, depicts the physical strata of a Paris neighborhood with both due attention to detail and variegation and an implicit emphasis on the calmly agreeable organization of the visible environment, which is pointedly unoccupied. When Biala goes inside, as with Nature Morte à la Table (1948) and White Still Life (1951), she apprehends the material incidents of private life from a distinct remove, according them equal perspectival weight in cool tones that impart a sense of secure refuge within humanity’s sprawl and struggle. Even figures are absorbed into their inanimate surroundings. Jeune fille en rose, assise (Young girl in pink, sitting) is a moderate example, Two Young Girls (Hermine and Helen) a more extreme one verging on abstraction. The idea, it seems, is not the world’s erasure or engulfment but rather its harmonious accommodation of individuals, whatever their identities.

Janice Biala, Nature Morte a la Table, 1948, oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 45 inches
Janice Biala, White Still Life, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 36 inches

The trappings of Biala’s work are bohemian, not bourgeois, and it has a proletarian undercurrent. In Chevet de Notre Dame et l’ile St. Louis, 1949, the iconic church is iconoclastically painted from the rear, now a passive source of cultural comfort rather than an imposing summoning of faith or awe. Le Louvre (1948) is similarly down-to-earth, spied from the vantage of the Left Bank and settling humbly on the museum’s rooftop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pieces from the mid to late 1950s, especially collages – see ViolincellisteBlue Parrot, and Untitled (Nature Morte) – are more abstract and suggestively gestural. Two drawings from the sixties – The Bather (Dana) and Study for “Blue Kitchen” – sunnily embrace the counterculture and 1960s modernism, respectively. Vaulting forward to 1970s, the celebrated triptych Les Fleurs, isolating vases of flowers from separate perspectives, and Brown Interior with Rosine, presenting a woman sitting in drab comfort, assume a more austere, subdued, and regimented cast, perhaps a nod to the exigencies of age and the compulsion of preservation – or to fading vitality.

Janice Biala, Jeune fille en rose, assise (Young girl in pink, sitting) 1951, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 inches
Janice Biala, Two Young Girls (Hermine & Helene), 1958, oil on canvas, 36 x 28 x 3/4 inches
Janice Biala, Chevet de Notre Dame et e lle St. Louis, 1949, 1949, oil on canvas, 35 x 45 1/2 inches
Janice Biala, Le Louvre, 1948, oil on canvas, 36 x 28 1/4 inches
Janice Biala, Violincelliste, 1957, collage on paper, 10 x 8 1/2 inches
Janice Biala, Blue Parrot, collage with oil and charcoal on paper, 12 1/8 x 9 3/4 inches
Janice Biala, Untitled (Nature Morte), 1957, collage and ink on paper, 14 1/8 x 20 3/8 inches
Janice Biala, The Bather (Dana), 1963, collage and ink on paper, 12 5/8 x 10 1/8 inches
Janice Biala, Study for “Blue Kitchen”, 1965, oil pastel and pencil on paper, 25 1/4 x 19 inches

It’s not too outlandish to say that Biala herself encapsulated the twentieth century, having lived 97 of its 100 years and tackled her vocation with versatility and virtuosity to match its historic eventfulness. She and her family – including her older brother, Abstract Expressionist painter Jack Tworkov – arrived in New York from Poland in 1913 and first lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, which presumably attuned her early on to the tension between population and space. To distinguish herself from Jack, she took as her surname the name of the Polish town of her birth. She was the last romantic partner of the English novelist Ford Madox Ford, author of Parade’s End, a noted tetralogy on the First World War. After his death in 1939, Biala, at personal risk, extracted his manuscripts from Paris as the Nazis bore down. She experienced and absorbed the alternating currents of history, and on this score the two paintings on display from the 1980s seem telling in their divergence. Homage to Piero della Francesca is bright, busy, and elegiac – aptly enough, towards a Renaissance painter known for both his humanism and his geometric sense of order – while Black Still Life with Artichokes is contrapuntally dark, spare, and foreboding. From the studio, Biala perceived, as great artists often do, the promise and the peril of her time.

Janice Biala, Les Fleurs, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 45 x 108 inches
Janice Biala, Brown Interior with Rosine, 1979, oil on canvas, 51 x 63 3/4 inches
Janice Biala, Black Still Life with Artichokes, 1986, oil on canvas, 32 x 39 3/8 inches
Janice Biala, Homage to Piero della Francesca, 1984, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 x 51 inches
Berry Campbell Gallery: Janice Biala, Paintings, 1946-1986, 2024, Installation View

“Janice Biala: Paintings, 1946–1986,” Berry Campbell, 524 West 26th Street, New York, NY. Through April 13, 2024.

About the author: Jonathan Stevenson is a New York-based policy analyst, editor, and writer, contributing to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Politico, among other publications, and a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.

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