56 HENRY is pleased to present Knees to Navel, an exhibition of five new paintings by Jo Messer, on view April 7 through May 8, 2021. Knees to Navel marks Jo Messer’s first solo exhibition.

The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.
—Lucian Freud

Jo Messer’s latest paintings offer stimulating and amusing comments about sexual identity and the human body, as well as the history of painting over the last hundred years. The naked women who populate her canvases engage in enigmatic activities that can be understood as either highly erotic, or simply whimsical remarks on the classic genre of the female nude. The show’s title alludes humorously to the sexual character of the work.

The forceful paintings, all oil on canvas, oscillate between abstraction and figuration. The viewer must engage intensely with the works; only a highly careful mode of looking unravels all the details. The vibrant colors and powerful application of paint make for dynamic works full of movement and strength. They come alive before our eyes, pigment by pigment, brushstroke by brushstroke, to almost hallucinatory effect.

Generators of air currents, from fans to blow dryers, are a recurring motif. Just as readily as we move between figuration and abstraction, we are taken from cold to hot. The paintings seem propelled by the fans, spinning at high speed in some parts and rotating more slowly in others. The figures themselves seem grotesque and disjointed; their body parts are utterly disproportionate to one another. Messer devotes particular attention to her subjects’ feet, which are immense, as if to suggest the works are grounded on stable pillars.

The show’s centerpiece is the diptych Once you have it, you’ll never leave it (2021), a massive work (47 x 127 in.) that depicts two women sitting naked on a living room floor. The woman on the left caresses her own breasts, while the one on the right kisses the other’s feet. Cups and glasses surround them suggesting a domestic environment, and we can see a small table, a vase of flowers, glass tiles, and hooks for coats, one of which holds up a surgical mask of the type essential in the time of COVID-19. Messer includes ambiguous elements such as a potential third figure behind the left woman, which could also be a reflection or perhaps the character’s spirit moving out of her body. The larger canvas of the diptych is painted in warm tones; red, orange, and yellow dominate, and some parts are overlaid with a faint coat of white as if we are gazing through a thin curtain. The smaller canvas features darker, more somber tones of red and black. The paintings are lively and spirited, and full of tension. We are witnessing a collapse of abstraction and representation, and perhaps even, between painted figures and actual living and breathing bodies.

Ultimately, despite the erotic poses and acts depicted the bodies are primarily a means of speaking about the possibilities and pressures of abstraction and figuration being brought together in a single canvas. Messer plays with the historical and conceptual underpinnings of painting to express a range of seemingly oppositional forces, all in the service of embracing the medium’s full potential in an utterly unique style.

Jo Messer (b. 1991, Los Angeles) lives and works in Brooklyn. She received her BFA from the Cooper Union in 2014 and her MFA from Yale University in 2017. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at Fredericks & Freiser, New York; Rove Projects, New York; Western Exhibitions, Chicago; and New Release, New York, among other venues.