Gary Petersen’s Populuxe abstraction
Contributed by Patrick Neal June 2, 2022 2:35pm

Full of bright and brimming lines and shapes, jumbled with quirky geometric forms and zippy colors, Gary Petersen’s paintings are giddy and uplifting. They bring to mind all manner of fun – vacation, travel, cartoons, toys, television, Creamsicles, candies, fruit slices and braided rag rugs, the flamboyant bills of toucans and pelicans. More deeply, his large abstract paintings exude a retro, utopian vibe that marries the hard-edge abstraction of late modernism with some of the quirkier strains of twentieth-century design.

In his current solo show at McKenzie Fine Art Inc., Petersen covers surface planes with blocks of high-key tutti-frutti color. Some of the shapes are pierced with holes and windows that allow us to see through to a subdued, lightened background. The colorful block shapes are brought to order by a scaffolding of thin lines that sweep across the compositions. The backgrounds comprise chunky bands and wavy lines covered by a scrim of white paint. The blocks nuzzle and abut one another, shifting and settling into place. Using both acrylic and oil paint, Petersen renders crisp and precise edges, possibly with the assistance of tape or stencils. Some paintings have fewer shapes or less saturated hues than others, but none are limited to just two or three colors.

Included in the show are smaller drawings done with colored pencil and ink and graphite on paper. These warm up the hard edges and provide entry points into the paintings. They may also constitute a means of examining the placement of the brighter constituent parts and generating final compositions. In paintings like Look Both Ways, corner borders that straddle the outermost edges of the canvas suggest an infinity of windows onto the architecture framed within. Sometimes entire compositions are abruptly cropped, as in Both of Us, which is bisected down the middle. Thin contour lines stroke, border and section off many large rectangular and elliptical shapes, exerting a pull up, down, and across the canvas. This underscores the elastic tautness of Petersen’s forms, which seem like sails, tarps or tents seen from different vantage points. Titles such as Spin Around, Switch Places, or Signal Flow gently suggest dynamism and movement.

Paintings like For the Moment and Standing Near Me, with their moving parts and pieces, conjure vintage pinball machines as well as games like Tetris or Plinko in which geometric objects are viewed through plexiglass panes and gravity figures into strategy. The flatness and the schematic quality of Petersen’s works also evokes shuffleboard and basketball courts, floor diagrams of dance steps, and X’s and O’s on football coaches’ chalkboards. And they made me think of painters like David Pease and Geoffrey Young who employ boardgame-esque motifs and strategies as well as poetic allusions to pop culture.

In their interplay of flatness and illusionism, Petersen’s paintings key on the visual idioms of Greenbergian high modernism and the optical and spatial concerns Howard Mehring and Nicholas Krushenick. Though clearly influenced by the high-mindedness of hard-edge abstraction, however, they also assert a more Populuxe or thrift-store aesthetic. Animating his work is the funky, pop-culture bric-a-brac that brought to life Fun Gallery, Gracie Mansion Gallery and the East Village art scene of the 1980s, particularly the whimsical interior design motifs of Rodney Alan Greenblat.

Petersen’s exhibition evokes happy nostalgia with wry intelligence, hearkening back to mid-century modern design and high-water marks in architecture, cartoons, graphic design and the applied and visual arts. His work recalls 1950s TV screens and cruise-line portals and George Nelson’s coconut chairs, bubble lamps, and polygon clocks, as well as modern architecture like the Chemosphere house in Los Angeles, designed in 1960. It incorporates the character and flourish of Googie and Streamline Moderne Architecture, while alluding to the fins and tails, pylons and pavilions, atoms and UFOs, and notions of space travel that infiltrated the zeitgeist. Insofar as much of this retro fare looked explicitly to the future, Petersen’s time capsules connect with contemporary tropes and may thus inspire present-day artists.

If writers use onomatopoeia and alliteration to make words musical in literary works, Petersen employs shapeshifting and design fluctuation to generate motion and dynamism in visual art. Not unlike the way Ellsworth Kelly drew on photographs of everyday vistas to inform his minimalist paintings, Petersen folds figural motifs into abstract forms. The jazzy discombobulation in Petersen’s paintings produces a sense of loopy exhilaration similar to what I felt when looking at the late Dan Christensen’s spraypainted whorls early this year at Berry Campbell Gallery. Petersen, like Christensen, has overlaid the futuristic onto the old-school, invigorating abstract painting with inventive hybridity.

“Gary Petersen,” McKenzie Fine Art, 55 Orchard Street, New York, NY. Through June 26, 2022.

Gary Petersen’s Populuxe abstraction