John Avelluto’s artworks — we’ll call them paintings for the sake of convenience — take trompe l’oeil places it was never meant to go. By turns exercises in mind-boggling craft and mind-twisting formalism, they repeatedly abrade the boundary between the hyperreal and the micro-minimal with their tough, exultant, inscrutable beauty.
They are paintings because they’re made with acrylic paint, but that’s where the distinction ends. Acrylic is a polymer — the same stuff that molded plastic is made of — and Avelluto uses the sculptural property of the medium to create an object that is simultaneously a simulacrum and a distortion of a real-life counterpart.
The works in Disintegrator, the artist’s current solo at Studio 10, are all untitled, all 2014, and come in two sizes, big and small. The big paintings are 44 x 34 inches and the small ones are 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Most of the works are mounted on the wall, but there are several on glass-topped tables. The ones on the wall use a wood panel support, while those on the tables are simply paper-thin films of acrylic.
Paper-thin is the operative term, because, as in many of the artist’s previous works, the paintings in Disintegrator exploit the measurements, textures and colors of a sheet of utilitarian (as opposed to fine art) paper. Both blank and ruled notebook paper have been used as sources, but most of the work here is based on graph paper. In Avelluto’s hand’s, graph paper’s identifying characteristic, the grid, becomes both a contemplation on the fate of formalism and an investigation into the impassive power of nothingness.
The current exhibition veers markedly into abstraction, devoid of the hand-lettered words and elliptical phrases that Avelluto has integrated into other works. Aside from two relief-paintings that mimic the form of a paper airplane, the works on the walls focus entirely on variations of blue lines on a white field, while the ones on the tables also incorporate a pink line based on the left-hand margin of notebook paper.
Avelluto does everything by hand, from pouring acrylic into delicate pools on a glass slab for his sheets of “paper” to dipping a calibrated ruling pen into paint to lay down each line (and there are thousands of them in this show) with meditative exactitude. (With context being everything, I was reminded of another artist in Studio 10’s roster, Meg Hitchcock, who creates intricately collaged texts by pasting together individual letters cut from the pages of sacred books. The patience and meticulousness evident in these artists’ practices are astonishing.)
In some of the wall-mounted paintings, the faux-graph paper is pasted flat to the wooden support; in others it’s folded, wrinkled, sliced, patched, woven, puckered or bellying off the surface, thereby rendering the piece unambiguously three-dimensional. The three large works, in which the graph paper is lined up in precise rows in one, seemingly thrown together in the second, and torn and wrinkled in the third, occupy a curious realm of not-painting and not-collage. Rather, each work comprises a kind of aggregate-painting — a polyptych assembled from nearly identical panels whose identity, especially when slipping off the bottom edge of the wooden surface, fluctuates between abstract plane and solid object.
In these paintings, even where the grid — the underpinning of formalism since the early 20th century — isn’t violated, it’s worn out: acidic and yellowing and held together with faux-Scotch tape (which is also made of acrylic). Where the graph paper is ripped, sliced into strips and cut into circles, the sensation is that formalism is not merely exhausted but trashed by the welled-up stressors it routinely suppresses: anger, frustration, anarchy and imagination, for starters. By restricting himself to the alleged purity of the grid, Avelluto has turned formalism inside out, opening it up to human messiness through the back door.
That said, these paintings also represent a hugely unpredictable undertaking. By stripping his work down to the bare lines, leaving aside such previously explored trompe l’oeil motifs as half-erased handwriting with eraser shavings made, once again, entirely out of acrylic paint, Avelluto is trading a certain degree of whimsy (though not his sense of humor: there’s an unbridled kookiness simmering under much of the work, especially in the cutout circles) for an awful lot of rigor — the kind that, in its visual austerity, can make or break an exhibition.
But his perceptual and theoretical concerns, firing on all cylinders, pose as many questions about signs and signification as there are variations of the mutilated grid (which is to say, endless). In one small work, a set of straight gridlines echoing the four sides of the painting create a frame around a rectangle composed of wavering, unruled ones. The oddly self-evident juxtaposition between the straight and the crooked delivers an unanticipated punch: things are not what they seem and, repurposing René Magritte’s famous line, this is not a sheet of graph paper. But it is also not an abstraction, nor is it a picture of a piece of graph paper — which is to say, there’s nothing we can count on.
Avelluto counterposes this vortex of Calvino-esque head-games with the blunt, unrelenting nakedness of his blue-and-white sheets, hitting the retina with the material power of Minimalism and the emotional resonance of an empty stage. Whether the stage is bare because the play has not yet begun, or because the bodies have been cleared away, is again nothing we can count on. All we know is that it is empty.
John Avelluto: Disintegrator continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 8.