The strident contrast between black and white is taking center stage at more than a dozen galleries in Chelsea and in Soho. Contemporary artists and a few artists from yesteryear are exploring unorthodox and atypical ways to experience this key contrast in color theory. The resulting formal grouping offers the opportunity for an especially focused walk that cherishes the yin and yang as a talisman and the zebra as a power animal.
The Palest Landscape and the Darkest Landscape
Two photographers set out toward opposing goals. At the Flowers Gallery, Boomoon tries to pack as much white as possible into his landscapes by capturing snow falling on a beach. Meanwhile, at Miyako Yoshinaga, Joo Myung Duck‘s printing techniques suffuse a mountainous forest with so much black that it looks like shimmering black velvet.
It’s ironic because there is a black backlash in Boomoon’s white beach and a backlash of white in Myung Duck’s black forest. In “Naksan #934” (2014), all the white on this South Korean beach turns the Sea of Japan into dark water. In “Mt. Jiri” (1989), all the black in this forest on top of the titular mountain bestows a white aura upon the lighter foliage. As with the yin-yang symbol, there is a bit of white in the blackest forest and a bit of black on the whitest beach.
The Yin-Yang Effect in Sculpture
Two sculptors in Chelsea likewise set out to create a sculpture in predominantly white or black, only to be bedeviled by the appearance of its opposition.
At Luhring Augustine, Janine Antoni creates a skeletal white basket from polyurethane resin in “to coalesce” (2014). But all this white in three dimensions invites shadows. The basket’s ribs cast dark shadows on the resin bones beneath them, and black shadows accumulate on the floor just underneath the basket.
At Matthew Marks, Tony Smith offers a large black sculpture inspired by ancient mud brick buildings, “Playground” (1962). Although all the faces of the steel sculpture are ostensibly painted black, a few faces reflect white light so brightly that they no longer appear black. The stark white walls accentuate this effect. All these white reflections make it difficult to call “Playground” a purely black sculpture.
Bugs in a Box
Two different artists both showcase bugs in a box with black and white, albeit with vastly different media innovations.
At BravinLee Programs, Amparo Sard reinterprets pointillism by perforating a sheet of paper with numerous small pinholes that cast tiny, dot-sized shadows, which add up to an image. Some of the works also employ swabs of black paint, but the shadows still do the heavy pictorial lifting. In “Void” (2014), it’s mesmerizing how she creates a woman, tree and bugs in a box from all these tiny micro-shadows. It’s as if the pests in the box at the center felt artistic and drilled those little holes themselves.
At Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, the idea that insects can be artists goes from metaphor to reality. Tomas Saraceno has learned how to turn spiders into sculptors. Following a complicated protocol that involves placing several different spider species into a glass vitrine for differing periods of time, the end result is a vortex of white silk. The installation in a darkened room with one light shining on each box accentuates the black-and-white contrast.
Black Painterly Dandruff
I use the term dandruff with love. It seems like the right word for these paintings, in which black forms expressionistically shed some painterly black dandruff onto their white surroundings. Some might say it sullies the white background. But purity is boring and the black speckles add visual interest to the pale backgrounds.
At Fridman Gallery, Summer Wheat‘s black drinking vessels are shedding in “Cups” (2015). The shapes beside the cups vary between flakes, dots, and drops of black. These cool specks make the black cups look more solid, break up the monotony of the white background, and create a spray effect across the picture plane.
At Petzel Gallery, Joyce Pensato surrounds a black duck with all these stray marks and lines in “Duck Soup 7” (2015). It’s as though the duck is shedding some painterly dandruff as well. As in Wheat’s work, this detritus provides a kind of middle place between the deep black of the form and the stark white of the background. It eases the transition. These chaotic forms gone amok reinforce the frantic look on the duck’s face.
Flowers in Spring? How Original!
So often depictions of nature revel in colors like lush greens and the bright hues of flowers. Two artists strip all that away. Their restricted black-and-white palettes allow attention to fall on lines and shapes.
At Kim Foster Gallery, Ron Desmett puts a flower pot on its side in “Persephone’s Garden” (2015). The glass sculpture with mixed media elements manages to make flowers look eccentric. The stamen on the flower reach out like arms and the tall leaves like legs. The entire sculpture starts to take on this alien appearance. It’s refreshing to see flowers look this weird.
At Chambers Fine Art, Yan Shanchun offers monochromatic paintings and prints. It’s the shapes that these nature prints pull off that makes them so special. The impressionistic scene dissolves under closer inspection into this flurry of black forms on a white background. There is this tension between seeing the work as a whole and then beholding all these discrete shapes. If there was color, the shapes wouldn’t have enough room to cause trouble like this.
These two artists are both creating black and white strips in unorthodox ways.
At Julie Saul Gallery, Adam Magyar uses homemade slit scan technology and custom computer programs to photograph a busy intersection in Hong Kong. In “Urban Flow 333, Hong Kong” (2007), the programs distill all the urban chaos into these glowing bands of black and white above the umbrella-toting pedestrians. Here again, the absence of color allows these lines to shine in the spotlight.
At Anton Kern Gallery, David Ratcliff‘s contribution to a group show inspired by Baudelaire creates stripes from shooting stars. In “Untitled” (2014), the hazy white comet tails glow against the blackish background. The rows of stars are totally straight, but their smoky tails invite the eye to wind through a maze of forms.
A Black-and-White Apocalypse
A work by Chris Hipkiss, a collective name for British artists Chris and Alpha Mason, had no parallels with other works. In “Why the sun?” (2012), on view in System and Vision at David Zwirner, a colossal, swirling apparatus menaces the humans below. This chaotic mess of forms contradicts itself, expels strange shapes, overwhelms with fastidious details, and obliterates viewers’ preconceptions about what black-and-white can achieve in art.
The caption at the bottom of the piece asks: “Why the Sun?” Well, you need the sun or strong artificial lighting to see color. Otherwise, everything dims into gray scale. When a hellish world is this entrancing and exciting in black and white, you can’t blame the caption for satirically wondering why the sun is even necessary. Who needs color? Although color can feel as vital to art as sunshine, going on this black-and-white stroll is like walking through a living Hipkiss. We don’t marvel enough at all the bizarrely intriguing effects that only come out when color goes away.
Tomas Saraceno’s Hybrid solitary… semi-social quintet… on cosmic webs… is view on at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 2.