“Lesley Vance” at Bortolami, a New York City Art Gallery: Art Exhibition Review

The latest exhibition at New York City’s Bortolami (an art gallery) from artist Lesley Vance is surprising. I was surprised when I visited the first time, and looking back at my reference images from the exhibition, I’m surprised again.

Vance, whose work is in a dizzying array of public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and The Met, presents startlingly expressive shapes that, taken on a strictly surface level, are actually extremely non-specific. (This isn’t abstraction where you can kind of see a tree there or a face on the other side.) But somehow, each of the works from Vance spread across Bortolami’s expansive downstairs gallery space feel extremely specific, genuinely capturing moments of time that are left for you to explore.

Capturing Fleeting Moments of Life

They’re consistently untitled (alas!), but one of the first in front of which I stood is an oil-on-linen piece that’s 31 inches tall and an even two feet wide. Here and elsewhere, Vance’s aesthetically abstract sweeps of painted color sometimes look intriguingly three-dimensional, making the works — though still wall-hanging images — have a sculptural undertone.

In this piece in particular, there’s a red half-oval atop an unpredictably shaped area of green that, color-wise, brings to mind sour apple candy. Snaking across the surface are sharply defined, exposed sweeps of color that internally mix colors like differently colored fogs filling an empty space, freely combining in the process.

The shapes — some of which feel ornate like a visual flash of luxury — are upbeat, energetic, and free-flowing. The forms all carry significant internal weight, giving them respective senses of presence suggesting, perhaps, the kind of fleeting feeling left behind by someone actually in a room who then, well, leaves: a real, just-below-tangible sense of someone actually there, somehow. Though the individual forms are all defined with precision, the intermingling is a smooth process. Everything lays at comfortable angles, moving into adjoining forms’ space and then back out of it. There’s plenty of overlap.

It all feels like a flash of companionship in the midst of something a bit louder: a party that is going actually pretty well for you. It’s not a spatial representation as much as a relational one, bringing to the forefront a consistent current of energy that sends that scene forward.

Lesley Vance, “Untitled” (2024); Oil on linen, 31 × 24 in (79 × 61 cm). Image courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen.

Paintings, Both Small and Large

And this kind of easily accessible, real-world parallel to Vance’s visuals returns throughout the exhibition.

It includes a standout series of smaller works, all apparently 16 inches in height and all using the same color palette: milky white that reminded me of marble, a soft but pointed tint of green that I processed as the background, and just a bit more, including a fiery shade of orange that also evoked fresh rust. The white across these surfaces was a prime example of the surprising dimensionality on display. Those areas had heft.

As for their actual content, the indeterminate shapes were back — all sporting remarkably personal character. The marble-suggesting curves of white seemed to move between desire, careful listening, outgoing energy, and a mischievously adventurous tone. Some of the shapes came across as conciliatory or seeking restitution, spurring in their emotive bends a real-world sense of being.

On a wall near these works hung a much larger one whose contents felt excitable and anticipatory, as though the painting captured an emotional state accompanying the cusp of something uplifting and truly grand. The connection was more emotional than literal, but a lot of Vance’s forms — particularly on this work, whose longest side was more than seven feet — reminded me of the forceful curvature of an arm rest on a particularly high-quality chair, emphasizing its accompanying aesthetic impacts.

The basic form was reminiscent of any such construction, but Vance incorporated an elevating flair — sharpness in the presentation of these eternally shifting shapes that splashed you into the immersive command of a situation already unfolding before you ever showed up.

Intuition, Made Physical

Bortolami described Vance’s process as “intuitive” not “premeditated,” and that’s discernible but also somewhat hidden in her work, honestly. Each artwork really does feel remarkably unified, suggesting emotional states, scenes where you’d find yourself, interactions with a loved one, or something else drawn from life.

One through-line is that they’re all rather buoyant (a descriptor I actually wrote down in the gallery), with an easy intermingling of sharp angles and expressive waves of painting alongside palettes of color for each work that really get moving. One could easily ascertain optimism.

The patterns, in their mirroring across the paintings in Vance’s exhibition, are propulsive to a perhaps surprising extent.

Avoiding rote methodology, Vance made her artworks’ immersive environments nonetheless pulsate rhythmically as she uses similar methods but takes each sweep in a fresh direction.

The paintings end up portal-like, as you’re drawn in by the sculpted nature to some of what you’re seeing that Vance doesn’t situate in any fully fleshed out surrounding environments.

Instead, things float and linger as the image takes center-stage, and the wide-ranging paintings suggest a pleasantly ordered flow to the marching band and merry-go-round of dislocated shapes and looming atmosphere that make up our memories of our physical experiences. I wanted to look for a while.

Lesley Vance’s self-titled exhibition continues at Bortolami through June 8. Check out more info on it here.

Lesley Vance, “Untitled” (2024); Oil on linen, 16 × 13 1/2 in (41 × 34 cm). Image courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen.
Lesley Vance, “Untitled” (2024); Oil on linen, 77 × 88 in (196 × 224 cm). Image courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen.

Featured image: “Lesley Vance, installation view, Bortolami, New York, 2024.” Image courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York. Photography by Guang Xu.