Every so often the idea behind an exhibition comes across as so pertinent and expansive that it makes you wonder why it hasn’t already become part of the conversation.
This appears to be the case with Reticulate, a group show at McKenzie Fine Art on the Lower East Side, which explores the concept of the network — digital, biological, social, historical — across a range of sensibilities, mostly in the form of abstract painting.
I may very well be wrong, but I can’t think of another show offhand with a similar premise, which, if true, suggests that the idea has been hiding in plain sight — so much a part of what we do that we don’t notice it until someone points it out.
While it’s easy to name this or that artist who uses web-like structures as a formal or narrative device, to come up against twenty-five works by seventeen artists mounted in a smart and sensitive installation feels like a paradigm shift.
And what is shifting is pictorial space — away from the almighty grid into looser, deeper, more organic and more pliable systems. Let’s consider for a moment what this implies in light of the grid’s dominance of the very idea of modernism from the paintings of Piet Mondrian through the late-postwar practices of artists as diverse as Larry Poons, Agnes Martin and Chuck Close.
The grid is the prime Greenbergian model of consonance within a painting’s physical dimensions. It reasserts the support’s flatness and right angles, so that any formal configuration will perforce parallel the surface on which it is created.
That model is now obsolete. The longitudinal/latitudinal simplicity of the grid has reached a point of diminishing returns aesthetically, and metaphorically it has been supplanted by technological and social changes, already ubiquitous by the turn of the 20th century, which have since gone into overdrive.
Our existence is, at the very least, multi-planar, and the artists in this show recognize that. But Reticulate is modest in its claims for the works on display. It neither announces a trend nor casts around for a wider significance.
The press release simply states, “The exhibition explores the work of artists who employ various types of reticulation, or imagery of webs and nets, in their work,” and then provides a brief description of each artist’s contribution.
The pieces in the show are so varied that it makes sense not to try to group or label them; the common thread is their content. There are linear networks, splotchy networks, networks overrun by multifarious forms. There’s a political one, a realistic one (of a spider’s web) and an art historical one.
Two large paintings face each other in the front part of the L-shaped gallery space, David Mann’s “Barcelona” (2012) and Jason Karolak’s “Untitled (P-1305)” (2013), defining the geometric (Karolak) and organic (Mann) ends of the spectrum.
Mann’s dark red painting is a tour-de-force of pouring, dripping and brushing, its high-gloss surface acting as the frontward terminus for legions of glowing, viral-looking forms as they bubble up from deep space. Karolak overlaps four linear structures, each a different color — scarlet, red-violet, cobalt blue and violet-ash — over a black field, the color changes evoking a Doppler shift.
Each painting violates the flatness of the picture plane while exploiting the classical power and elegance derived from the frontal presentation of imagery. Their depth is achieved by sandwiching several imaginary planes together, through which we can see the limitless field beneath.
In contrast, the four meticulously interconnected ink drawings on notebook paper (dated between 1999 and 2012) by Lori Ellison, firmly set their patterns on the surface, with three of them appearing somewhat relief-like, as if alluding to delicately tooled tracery or Renaissance metalwork.
The lacy patterns of Daniel Hill’s two untitled works (2012 and 2013) literally rise off the surface, the effect of blue acrylic polymer emulsion applied to a black paper support, resulting in an emphatically handsome, wiry materiality.
The blunt tactility of these pieces is carried into Jason Rohlf’s “Soundings” (2013), an explosion of multicolored triangles that, although painted in acrylic on canvas, possesses the bold graphic flavor and tough, matte surface of a Jacques de la Villeglé affichiste collage.
Laura Sharp Wilson’s two works in the show (from 2007 and 2011), which are done in acrylic and graphite on Unryu paper, are just as bold and tactile, but where Rohlf adheres to geometric patterning, Wilson’s imagery is wild and unpredictable, comprising incisively rendered forms that thrust, interlink, zigzag, slash and loop in jammed-together layers.
Wilson paints both sides of the translucent paper, enabling her to seamlessly intersect elements on the verso with new ones on the recto, a profusion of shape and color suggesting random phenomena and parallel lives.
But thanks to the interplay of milky and vivid colors combined with the paper’s skin-like membrane, these works, which have the makings of nerve-jangling stand-ins for our dangerously overstimulated cerebral cortices, are in fact irresistibly sensual — multidimensional complications with an erotic, upbeat spin.
The underbelly of networking is represented by the late Mark Lombardi’s “Cabazon Arms of Indio, California, circa 1978-88 (third version)” (1999), a graphite-on-paper diagram of shady arms dealings manifested in clusters of confederates that spiral outward from the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to the swarms of low-profile players along the fringes.
Beside it, explicating another form of exchange, is Loren Munk’s “Symbolic Clusters” (2010), a daisy-chain flow chart of art historical influence implicating Dada and American Pop with the Pictures Generation, British Pop and the now not-so-young Young British Artists.
Munk’s canvases are always so chock-full of information that it’s easy to overlook what a gifted colorist he is, with subtle variations of high-key primaries and secondaries, thickly laid down in dizzying patterns, that play off swatches of smoldering grays, tonic earth tones and crisp contrasts of black and white.
Interestingly, the most literal depiction of a web is also one of the least compelling, Vija Celmins’ “Untitled (Web 3)” (2002), a print incorporating photogravure, aquatint and drypoint. Its blurry, grayed-down image of a spider’s web may lack the graphic punch of its hyperactive neighbors, but it’s tempting to look beyond the formal and consider that there may be something more metaphysical going on.
Our present-day understanding of networks is implicitly abstract — electronic, social, even spiritual — and so to be brought down to earth by a picture of a spider’s web undercuts the point of the show, which is to give form to a concept forever in flux.
In a weird way, the material/immaterial tension occasioned by the inclusion of “Untitled (Web 3)” brings to mind the transition from late Roman art to Early Christian, in which the human body became increasingly stylized and abstracted, in part to distance Christian iconography from Rome’s body-centric hedonism.
An icon bearing the face of Jesus is not a portrait of a particular man; such a specific representation would distract the believer from the image’s spiritual essence, encumbering it with the mundane. Similarly, the virtual architecture of connectivity that each of us harbors exists in a realm of intuition and imagination; an analogue as worldly as Celmins’ spider’s web inevitably falls flat.
Traveling at the speed of light, networks defy physical limitations, intervening in our lives thousands of times a day while remaining as incorporeal as seraphim. Addressed as art, their visual avatars are at their most potent when they are equally indefinable and elusive, pointing to worlds just beyond our reach.
Reticulate continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 17.
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