Recently I was talking to a sculptor friend and made a flippant remark that it seemed to me as if “abstract painting is back.” A seasoned 65 to my slight 27, he smiled as he asked: “Again?” It is true that the public’s interest in art might best be characterized as cyclical. Every so often there is a renewed interest in a particular movement, medium, or moment of contemporary or postwar art. It is undeniable that the last couple of years have marked a renewed interest in abstract painting. A younger generation of artists and galleries showing work on Manhattan’s Lower East Side have brought this discussion to the forefront, and critics, collectors, and collectors seems to have taken notice.
While I am personally drawn to abstraction, what bugs me is how oversimplified a statement like the one I made to my friend can be. To classify those artists making abstract painting today under one umbrella would be a misstep. The current exhibition Color Line — at Outpost Artists Resources in Ridgewood, Queens — provides a comprehensive and honest look at the various approaches being applied to abstract painting and sculpture. It must be said that the exhibition (and this article) provide only a specific look at a limited number of approaches. What it does do is illustrate that painting (and/or sculpture) today is not embodied by one movement, but exists at an intersection where any number of practices overlap. Painters like Brooke Moyse draw strength from abstract and Color Field painters of the 1960s and 1970s. The goal seems to be to make paintings that disarm and engage the viewer. Her two canvases on view are characteristic of a sort of laid back, friendly warmth. Similarly, Tamara Zahaykevich’s quirky foamcore and paper constructed wall reliefs recall Richard Tuttle but add a DIY, playful twist. Both of these artists seem to wield abstraction in a manner that might be downright traditional were in not for a certain level of exuberance that feels decidedly contemporary.
Siebren Versteeg combines a sort of dry wit and technologically infused conceptualism in his approach to abstract painting. The artist uses an algorithmically generated computer program that he created to construct “unique” paintings. The program chooses color, brush size, and composition and yet somehow his works have a stylistic unity to them. His “Spaceex2_12000x16000_3″(2012) is U.V. printed on unprimed canvas. This is the second time I have seen one of these works in a group exhibition and both times I enjoyed watching the crowd’s response. A great number of those viewing the piece didn’t question that it was a handmade painting, and they seemed to evaluate it according to those terms. While the work exists successfully in this context, it does also raise interesting conceptual questions about the nature of individuality and artistic identity in abstract painting.
Alex Lee Harris uses the precedent of abstract sculpture to riff playfully against his environment. Her “Inner Outer”(2013) is a pleasing, purple, and yellow angular form that melds minimalism with the functionality of a speaker. Using antenna and electrical components she has created a motion/proximity activated theremin-esque musical instrument that screeches dissonantly at gallery visitors who pass within a certain range. The result is as much about the reaction and relationship of viewers as it is about the sculpture itself. I can’t help smile as what should be an imposing monumental form is transmuted something playful and approachable.
Both Harris and Versteeg seem to use abstraction as a trojan horse. Both works exist formally on their own accord, however each houses a subversive support structure that seems to drip with wry, self aware humor.
Björn Meyer-Ebrecht’s painting’s use modernist architecture and design as a starting point, using basic geometric form as an alphabet with which to render these utilitarian and utopian forms into idiosyncratic compositions. His multimedia work on paper in this exhibition “Untitled(Chairs)”(2011) depicts the orderly lines of modernist chairs within an almost orgiastic moshpit of collage and painted forms. The result is a sort of re-imagining of the modernist legacy of design. Similarly Robert Otto Epstein’s carefully composed colored pencil drawings render vintage European and American textile and clothing patterns into flat, 2d geometric abstractions that read like color field paintings. The result is visually stimulating and very handsome. I wonder, however if the underlying framework is not a bit cerebral or thin.
I was immediately taken with the eccentric vision presented in Ursula Schneider’s “Aster & Asteroid” (2013). Her painting on laminated nylon treats landscape in a way that is both inventive, humorous and grounded in tradition. The artist has invented her own process of painting with pigment and urethane on a support that is fixed directly to the wall. The result is an ultra saturated surface of color that is both vivid and totally flat. The image is quirky and well painted. I think, in this day and age it is difficult to render landscape in a way that is relevant. It appears to me that Schneider’s years of painting landscape have finally yielded something great; I am reminded of Joseph Stella in terms of sheer imagination.
It is telling that the exhibition’s curator is Rico Gatson. His piece, “Double Michael#1″ (2011) is a C-print featuring a dyptich black and white image of Michael Jackson, interspersed with a maze-like line of multicolor. The result is decorative and haunting. Gatson’s line weaves itself across the surface of the image, obscuring immediate recognition but also forcing the viewer to dissect the entirety of the photograph, inch by inch. Gatson seems to focus on emblem and history. He uses abstraction as part of a larger vocabulary, in which installation, sculpture, painting and photography serve as touchstones for experience. The idea is to prompt the viewer into contemplation.
Though it is immediately apparent that the work on view is united by a commonly held belief in humor, saturated color and abstracted form, it is the variety of approaches and motives rather than any one shared aesthetic concern that gives the exhibition its strength. We can not relive the 1950s, 60s or 70s nor should we attempt to reproduce the types of abstraction pioneered during that time. Rather the common strategy seems to be to recalibrate the tropes of abstraction, dispatching previous notions of formalism in favor of personal vision. While the work on view lacks the unity of one (or even several) easily identifiable movements, Color Line, by corralling the conceptual, playful and intuitive into one exhibition, seems to prove that the lack of one world view can be a strength rather than a weakness
Color Line continues at Outpost Artist Resources (1665 Norman Street, Ridgewood, Queens) until October 25.
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