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Optical painting has been making its presence felt lately, with its 21st-century manifestation swapping the psychedelia and illusionism of its ’60s progenitor, Op Art, for an emphasis on process, systems and formal interrogation. The results are playful, tough, astringent, sensual, and thoroughly Romantic.
No facetiousness intended. Optical or perceptual painting, for all of its rigor and intellection, can be thought of as a vanguard in defense of “aura,” a Romantic credo affirming the power of the art object. Optical painting may look anything but emotional in its content, but its direct engagement with the viewer underscores a deep-seated longing to connect.
Presented digitally on the web or reproduced in a book, a perceptual painting might look like a jazzy logo or a self-aggrandizing barcode. But on the wall, its materiality and scale send the eye skittering across the surface, often so dizzyingly that the composition appears to heave, swell and jitter.
The genre has matured considerably over the past half-century, veering from cheap tricks toward labor-intensive analyses of form and color, and a deeper understanding of the act of seeing.
The current show at Minus Space, Breaking Pattern, presents perceptual art at an intriguing juncture, where it departs from historical notions of the form — that of a smooth, clean surface transmitting a depersonalized optical buzz — toward something messier, more visceral and open-ended.
The show features the work of five artists — Gabriele Evertz, Anoka Faruqee, Gilbert Hsiao, Douglas Melini, and Michael Scott — across two generations (Evertz was born in 1945; Faruqee and Melini were born in 1972) constituting successive waves of perceptual art.
Any skepticism about the durability and seriousness of the style is banished upon entering the gallery, where the installation, and especially the central juxtaposition of works by Scott, Faruqee and Melini, is visually striking and materially formidable. You know immediately that you are looking at substantial works.
The centerpiece — and the standard bearer for the theme of breaking pattern — is Michael Scott’s 63-inch-square “#98” (2012) in black enamel on aluminum. Dominated by vertical lines on a white field, the surface is flecked with small smudges of black paint. The effect is odd, jarring: the precision of the tightly laid-out lines enhances the poignancy of the blemishes, while the errant marks, which are seemingly random, reassert both the primacy of the surface and the object-ness of the painting.
The same can be said about Anoka Faruqee’s “2013P-84 (Wave)” (2013), in which a moire pattern in dark violet and green (so dark that they initially read as black) over a yellow ground is marred by blots and skeins of paint. While it is unclear whether the marks on Scott’s “#98” (hanging to the left of Faruqee’s canvas) appeared accidentally during the line-making process or at some other point in the work’s genesis, the imperfections in “2013P-84 (Wave)” are apparently a direct result of the artist’s idiosyncratic method of covering the entire surface with a color, scraping it off with a large, customized toothed instrument, and then sanding down what’s left.
The dark colors, caking along the edges like icing, are stunningly sensuous, especially in contrast to the discordant, almost institutional-looking yellow. The process of making the painting, in which thick, matte paint is manipulated into impeccably precise, smoothly sanded green and violet swirls over a whistle-clean yellow field, is almost impossible to imagine — a mystery verging on the miraculous.
Douglas Melini’s paintings are equally worked over, but to a far different effect. The artist, who in the past has employed exactingly symmetrical patterns, first executes a complexly woven system of intersecting diagonals, not unlike his previous work, only to return to the canvas and violate the surface with streaks, florets and heaping impastos of paint, as if the initial layers of the piece had been strung so tightly that something had to snap, and did.
There are two paintings by Melini in the show (both untitled, both 2014), one in variations of green and the other with strokes of black, white and green against a grayed-down cocoa. Both are set into boxy, geometrically painted frames that recapitulate the main color scheme as well as edge the works across the increasingly elusive line between painting and sculpture. Of everything in the show, these two pieces are the hardest to get a bead on, swinging between decoration and expressionism, minimalist cool and frenzied spatter.
The two remaining artists in the exhibition, Gabriele Evertz and Gilbert Hsiao, seem at first to stand apart from their gallery-mates. In contrast to Scott, Faruqee and Melini, they don’t deviate from perceptual art’s customarily clean surfaces, yet their approach ultimately feels just as intuitive and aleatory. (Evertz and Hsiao were both included in a large group exhibition of perceptual art, Doppler Shift, curated by Mary Birmingham at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, NJ, for which I wrote a catalogue essay.)
Evertz’s painting, “Grays and Metallics (Aedicula), The Black Room Series” (2014), is a series of vertical stripes arranged in what appear to be two layers, one achromatic, with varying shades of gray, white and black acrylic, and the other chromatic, in gold, silver and brass-colored metallic paint. The dark-to-light-to-dark progression of the acrylic stripes become an illusionistic grille, as the metallic paint, laid out in thin lines, floats on top.
The regular intervals between the metallic lines give the impression that the painting is an exercise in consistency. But look again, and you’ll notice that the achromatic stripes are not straight up and down, but broaden and taper with abandon. Another look will tell you that the metallic lines aren’t evenly spaced either, and that they are impersonated across the middle third of the composition by extremely attenuated white triangles. Something you thought you instantly understood becomes instantly unfamiliar.
Gilbert Hsiao’s shaped panel, “Dual” (2008), is the most illusionistic piece in the show, including his own “North Star” (2013) in the gallery’s corridor window, but not in the unidimensional way of much vintage Op. Hsaio’s illusionism is the result of exploratory formal decisions that configure a restricted set of colors into tight overlays through a painstaking taping process; nothing the artist does is pointed toward a predetermined visual effect. Once the application of paint is complete (with an industrial sprayer that allows for a grittier texture than more conventional methods) and the tape is removed, the result is always a surprise.
In “Dual,” the colors are white and black beneath a top layer of silver. The silver is plotted out as a single angle emanating from the two curved sides of a quasi-parallelogram, which has been shaped from a laminated wood panel. The inward-pointing vertices are repeated until the one that started on the left disappears off the top edge, while the one on the right sinks below the bottom. After the vertices’ disappearance, the two remaining arms become independent diagonals that meet at the center of the panel, seemingly splitting it in two.
It is impossible to know the direction that the black took before the silver was applied, but the combination of the two throbs relentlessly. As you stare at the painting, the silver and black appear to separate from the white, drift forward and resolve into a sculptural scaffold. Look at the surface from a skewed angle, and the white ground seems to evaporate into the whiteness of the wall, accentuating the apparitional three-dimensional aspect of the piece. In Hsiao’s hands, meticulous measuring results in a kind of retinal mysticism.
Critics have made much of the spiritual connotations of abstract art, citing as exemplars such diverse artists as Hilma af Klint, Vasily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. But perceptual painting, bound up in the earthly elements of pigment and design, arranges sets of physical properties that repeatedly confound the eye, leading us to see what is not there, or to mask what actually is there. It’s an art form of the intangible.
Perhaps that is why the damage inflicted on the surfaces of the paintings by Scott, Faruqee and Melini feels so moving — its assertion of real-world imperfections bring home a sense of spiritual abandonment, the abjectness of defiled purity — while the work of Evertz and Hsiao carry a heady sense of wonder. The word “aedicula” in Evertz’s title, “Grays and Metallics (Aedicula), The Black Room Series,” is Latin for “shrine.”
Breaking Pattern continues at Minus Space (111 Front Street, #226, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through April 18.