The Many Faces of Abstraction
by Patrick Neal on July 9, 2013
Since painters of any stripe, be it abstract or figurative, no longer work around master narratives, trying to tackle one big issue, it’s common to see group shows of abstract painting arranged around particular interests or strategies a select group of artists may share.
A while ago I visited the exhibit Untitled (Painting) at Luhring Augustine and found myself mulling over the works on display ever since. That show which featured painters such as Daan van Golden, Tauba Auerbach, and Wade Guyton accentuated conceptual approaches to abstract painting. The paintings tended to be taken in with a quick read and relied on external sources; mechanical processes or conceptual references for their meanings to fall into place.
In the past few years, we have also been hearing a lot on the subject of the so-called “New Casualists” or “Provisional Painters.” Artists — some of whom were included in Untitled (Painting) — who make tentative works, often deliberately shoddy, that belie a discomfort with fixed rules and formal ideologies. Their sensibilities, in tune with an era in art where “anything goes” could speak to the contingent nature of painting today.
Recently, at Storefront Bushwick, the group show Phaedo opened. Taking its title from Plato’s dialogue on the soul’s immortality, the exhibit “presents the practice of abstraction as a vehicle for the exploration of a world that exists apart from the physical one we inhabit.” This is a nice idea that, dare I say, reaches for the transcendent. As opposed to the tentative, the work in Phaedo is rigorously grounded and owes something to the abstract painting examined in the National Academy Museum’s High Times Hard Times, an important show that focused on the transitional work of painters from 1967 through 1975. Back then, abstract painting investigations were still rooted in aesthetic considerations coming on the heels of high modernism. If much contemporary abstract painting has a “hands off” mentality, then the work in Phaedo is very much “hands on” even when it is minimal or slight. With several paintings in the show, the emphasis is less on building up to a terminal point as it is about putting together the right combination of elements to achieve balance.
Osamu Kobayashi and Dominic Mangila’s paintings have in common inchoate figurative elements and sensual paint handling. The titles of Kobayashi’s two small paintings, “Saber” and “After Hours,” make witty reference to light sources; possibly a raised light saber and lurid neon sign. Both works are comprised of not much more than two colors and a large U-shaped sweep that defines the light. In “After Hours,” you can see through a thinned veil of pink oil paint to a blue ground. “Saber” uses thicker paint, dense and viscous, a dark grey on top etches out the glowing powder blue saber. With a pop sensibility, Kobayashi’s paintings come off as light-hearted brethren to Guy Goodwin’s more solemn process paintings of the 70’s. Dominic Mangila’s “Untitled,” in surreal fashion, features a circle and a square sitting on a tabletop as if they are identifiable objects. The circle could be a tree ring, the square a tile, as they rest against what could be chairs tucked under a tabletop. The tabletop and objects are rendered in hot sherbert yellow, lime and orange and set against a back wall comprised of cool aquamarine shadows. The paint throughout is highly blended both on figure and ground, colors bleeding into one another. Painted effects of marble, tree rings, wood grain and shadow serve both to situate and break down the illusion and accentuate the physical paint.
Benjamin Echeverria and Emily Berger exhibit two works each, all untitled and employing minimal means to arrive at their compositions. Echeverria’s pieces are comprised of only raw canvas and white primer applied with no discernible strokes and not quite reaching the end of the canvas. His work in the front of the gallery has four central balls positioned with a Zen calm and balance. A second painting in the back room looks as if he has taken a similar motif but zoomed out. His works, both in surface design but also metaphorically, have a ying yang, interlocking quality like puzzle pieces fitting together. The geometry of the painted design acknowledges the structural materials; how canvas stretches over wood supports, the keys and mitered joints of the wooden corners, even the placement of the canvases in the gallery. Berger, working on wood panel, applies simple arched bands of black and cream oil paint; some applied heavy have a charcoal tactility, others are loose like motor oil. Black bands scumble as they run out of paint while others grow to a richer blue black when they overlay cream strokes. Her paint handling has subtle meditative shifts in relation to the wood support. We notice nuances in the cream bands which are close in hue to the wood, how the bands run perpendicular to the wood grain, and tend to straighten or bend as they play off a planks fibers. With a few simple moves Berger commingles the worlds of the physical and illusory.
Lauren Portada and Elizabeth Hazan arrange their compositions around blocks of color. As if, in a dialogue, Portada’s two paintings are hung together, “Boy and Horse” slightly higher than “Fell/Felt.” Painting on the top and bottom of jute stretched over support in a limited palette of red, yellow, black and grey, “Boy and Horse” has the physicality of an Alberto Burri. Portada pushes paint through the porous jute from the back as well as stains and brushes the top surface. Dense paint on the surface is cordoned off in angular zig zags, some areas left alone to see-through to the painterly effects of the backside. As the title “Fell/Felt” suggests, the construction of the works seems in direct contemplation of the creative process. Hazan’s “Untitled (X-19)” has a continuous line that comes in from the outside of the canvas, winding its way to the colorful center of the composition-imagine looking up a stairwell to a stain glass roof. Simple colored blocks are placed on top of a dark brown ground; as the shapes never touch, the pervasive ground orchestrates the arrangement. A red, orange or green is adjusted with an overlapping color to tamp down the saturation The work has an upbeat retro punchiness, animated by a jazzy energy like the paintings of Stuart Davis and posters of Saul Bass.
Anne Russinof and JJ Garfinkel work in the realm of lyrical abstraction, with forms, easy to imagine, culled from nature’s landscape. With “Red Line, Green Line,” Rusinof lays down large, strokes of pine green and vermilion on an off white ground. Working wet on wet, she overlays quivering ribbons of yellow, the green and red bleeding through to help differentiate a strokes vertical or horizontal axis. The lines unfurl in an all over manner coming into being through the gravity of the yellow strokes. JJ Garfinkel’s “Untitled 2,” looks like a grey pool of rippling stream water; subtle silvery grey shimmering with peach, yellow and mint tones. If Rusinof’s painting throws off a high key intensity, Garfinkel’s works are a woozy midsummer’s night dream, conjuring up the shadows and figments of insects or plants. Garfinkel works the painting with a lot of blending and tapering; bits come into being and others dissolve while you move in and across the composition. “Untitled,” in the back room evokes a dappled summer light hitting the side of a wall; a jarring hard edge interrupts the more subdued and restful lower portion. Green and white bands run everywhere; like the streaming chlorophyll of stalks or grasses and white fireflies and shooting stars.
Nate Ethier and Gilbert Hsiao work in the idiom of hard-edged abstraction. In Ethier’s Niagara, paint stripes appear to be aligned through stenciling and layed down in sequential order from bottom to top; hot oranges on top, and pale lime and pink on bottom. Rhythmic as waves against a dam or the patterns on a tribal belt, one wonders if Niagara refers to the waterfall, the Iroquois Indians or the power utility company? After Neo Geo, it is impossible not to consider the sociological trappings within abstraction. The shape of Hsiao’s ”Lucky Strike,” resembles a medieval conquistador’s helmet or breastplate. Bands layered silver on top of black over white emanate from a center horizon type line but don’t quite converge. The colored rules overlapping one another do not meet at the same vantage point so we’re allowed to glimpse the symmetrical but irregular patterns they make as they overrun one another. A magenta stripe runs vertically through the composition and the entire effect creates an op art vibration. The work’s surface and internal rhythms conflate a variety of free-floating associations that span stratospheres; warrior garb, explosive strike, quasar.
The artists in Phaedo all have the facility with their medium and the imaginations to transport themselves and the viewer, making the exhibition an exhilarating addition to the current crop of summer group shows devoted to abstract painting. With only one or two works per artist, you will want to seek out these painters individually.
Phaedo continues at Storefront Bushwick (16 Wilson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through July 28.