PHILADELPHIA – A few months back, in a review of Jan Baltzell’s paintings, I discussed the slippage between representation and abstraction. In one painting, I thought I saw a thumb, and in another I was convinced George Washington’s head was hovering in the upper right corner. This was content the artist didn’t intend.
After that piece appeared I had some interesting discussions with readers, including artists. One told me that a studio visitor didn’t like one of his abstract drawings because she could see a stick in it, while a curator saw one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; one of the legs was the aforementioned stick.
Michael Gallagher’s current exhibition at Schmidt Dean, Hallucination Engine, which consists of works in acrylic on panel, raised this issue for me again. However, Gallagher’s new work, unlike Baltzell’s, deliberately tests the supposed line between abstraction and figuration.
This is the artist’s seventh show at the gallery; five of them have been exclusively representational paintings. Gallagher started out an abstract painter, but after spending some time with Charles Willson Peale’s work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he made the switch to figuration. He has returned to abstraction in recent years because of a medical ailment that prevents his hand from maintaining the steadiness required for fine detail.
With Hallucination Engine, Gallagher fixes his attention on the layering of color and the delineation of space. In a small area just above the middle of “Pink and Green” (2016), there’s a nice pocket of pink, blue, white, and yellow. The brush strokes are light, but obvious enough to see. Below that pocket and slightly to the left, is a curious blue square in the midst of more pink. Stepping back, that little blue square seems to become an eye, and the imperfect pink oval above it looks like a rabbit’s ear.
In his artist statement, which is entitled “A Bell is a Cup is a Bird is a Plane,” Gallagher writes:
Hallucination Engine – isn’t that what a painting can be? Works for me, and I indulge myself on a regular basis.
Images and their attendant associations are constantly slipping, and this ‘slippage’ can keep the image flexible enough to accommodate an endless range of readings.
Gallagher’s statement acknowledges that the viewer’s mind, not just the painter’s, brings material to the canvas. In a brief video for the show, he mentions that he no longer makes categories for abstraction and representation. Perhaps this lack of division has always been true, even for those painters who would deny it. Abstract and representational painting both begin with colors and shapes. For Gallagher, the return to “abstraction allows for more subjective use of color.” Should he return to representational painting, he hopes that he’ll be able to apply this practice to that work.
From a distance, “Heat Engine (Dippy)” (2016) seems to be dominated by white in the lower left corner, but that area of the painting is actually much more nuanced. Underneath the surface there appears to be some purple, which tints that ghost-like shape a light teal. Gallagher also undermines the seeming uniformity of color with a series of long, flowing drips roughly from the middle to the bottom of the image.
Throughout this show it’s abundantly clear how meticulous and smart Gallagher is with each painting. While the red rectangle at the center of “Winged” (2016) would understandably draw the viewer’s eyes, as one moves outward the textures change. There are brush strokes large and small. There are scratches. Gallagher also provides a few surprises. Underneath the large domed blue shape there are traces of orange and a small L-shape with red, blue, and green. On the left, across from the L, floats a yellowish circle. This offers a dynamic change in scale and encourages me to see this work as its own solar system, as if there is another universe below the surface level of these paintings.
“Big Pink” (2016), which calls to mind The Band’s 1968 album Music from Big Pink, is perhaps the most obvious test of the divide between figuration and abstraction. On the lower left, again below the surface, are sketches that could simply be shapes, but could also suggest unfinished flowers. Throughout the painting traces of green emanate from the pink. In the middle is a single strand of hair that seems accidental. A friend of mine, who accompanied me to the show, remarked that the painting seems to say, I’ve been weathered, but I’m not finished.
I keep returning to one of Gallagher’s comments in the aforementioned video. His use of color, he said, has been influenced by time that he’s spent online over the years looking at digital images; our backlit screens emphasize color in ways that makes them appear artificial. Because of this, he thinks, colors that artists are using today have an “extra kick.” In other words, there are influences at work of which artists might not be completely conscious.
To Gallagher’s comments, I would add that the abstractions themselves must also bear some relation to our online experiences. While we’re online, there is always activity on the periphery. When we’re not focused on those areas, we are only aware of shapes and colors; we are only aware of abstractions. How does our mind interpret that information at the edges? And when we are bouncing from this link to that link, coming closer to inducing vertigo, how much do our eyes capture? In this activity alone there is much opportunity for slippage. And in these slips we might just see something we didn’t know was there.
Michael Gallagher: Hallucination Engine continues at the Schmidt Dean Gallery (1719 Chestnut Street, Center City, Philadelphia) through May 21.