Martha Clippinger, “puzzlin’ evidence” (2015) acrylic on wood, 12 x 8 1/2 x 1 inches (all images courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery)

In 2012, Martha Clippinger had her first exhibition, Hopscotch, at Elizabeth Harris. Two years later, she had her second show, Flipside, at the same gallery. ¡Loteria!, currently at Elizabeth Harris (October 20 – December 3, 2016), is her third and easily her best show.

For one thing, she has expanded her use of materials and has begun to work with tapestry weavers in Mexico. Clippinger is a wonderfully democratic artist who, like Cordy Ryman, makes art out of discarded pieces of wood without fetishizing her materials. Her use of hothouse colors and repeated geometric shapes adds a further zing to her work. The sources of her wall pieces range from game boards to Mexican and Southern folk art, which she reconfigures through a sensibility informed by a love of carnival colors and a passion for the geometric abstraction, going all the way back to the Bauhaus.

Martha Clippinger, “amate stack” (2016), acrylic on amate paper, 23 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches

Imagine the wayward progeny of the textile artist and printmaker Anni Albers and the Mexican geometric artist Gunther Gerzso, experimenting with the wild palette generated by a computer, and you get a glimpse into what Clippinger is up to. However, in contrast to most geometric abstractionists, she never goes for the big concept: her work is modest and playful, full of joyful, unapologetic insouciance. These works can bring a smile to your face, if you let them.

Martha Clippinger, “kitty-cornered” (2015), acrylic on wood, 20 3/4 x 5 x 1 1/2 inches

In this day and age – when seriousness seems to be a required stance when it comes to art making – Clippinger’s modestly scaled works are a welcome relief, particularly since they never devolve into preciousness. Her brightly colored works can be divided into painted reliefs made of wood; layered collages made of amate paper, fabric, and leather; a tapestry or runner made of hand-dyed wool. By including a hand-dyed tapestry, “Untitled (Tapete)” (2015), in the same show with a piece made from two wooden fan blades (“Kitty-Cornered,” 2015) and a layered wall piece of cut wood (“Parcheesi,” 2016), Clippinger dissolves the distinction between the well-trained artisan and the novice carpenter, and between high-minded geometric art and children’s games.

By making modestly scaled pieces out of wood scraps that she joins together and paints in geometric patterns, Clippinger pushes back against the tradition that honors artists who make work for corporate lobbies and the grand spaces of museums. In other words, she has refused to join the club that celebrates the excesses of the 1% by making glitzy baubles and ponderous, oversized paintings to hang on their walls. Instead of making trophies, Clippinger focuses on making art, which is often quirky and irrepressible. Her palette includes lavender, orange, pink, and red – what some might call feminine colors. Even at her most severely geometric, she doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously; a current of playfulness runs through all her work.

Martha Clippinger, “untitled (tapete)” (2015), hand-dyed woven wool, 72 x 22 3/4 inches

As an M.F.A. student at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, where Thomas Nozkowski taught for many years, and where I also teach, Clippinger absorbed an important lesson from Nozkowski’s work: Modesty can be fierce and challenging. The fact that her work doesn’t look like Nozkowski’s and isn’t painting at all, is to her credit. As someone who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and currently lives and works in Durham, North Carolina, Clippinger is quite knowledgeable of such eccentric Southern artists as Eddie Owens Martin (1908 -1986), who called himself St. EOM. Martin built a number of interconnected concrete buildings on seven acres of land, which he called Passaquan, in Marion County, Georgia. St. EOM painted these drab structures in bright colors and patterns and affixed sculptural element to the walls, often using tin.

Martha Clippinger, “sprig” (2016), acrylic on wood, 18 1/2 x 12 3/4 inches

As much as anyone else I have mentioned, St. EOM is one of the sources feeding Clippinger’s work. However, unlike many young contemporary artists influenced by outsider art and artists, Clippinger’s painted wood reliefs don’t come across as faux folk art. They are too sophisticated for that. This bodes well for her future, because between the collages and the tapestry, along with her use of found materials, such as fan blades, it is clear she hasn’t gotten stuck in a groove. Certainly, for all the consistency one sees in her work, there are enough shifts, ruptures, and unexpectedly diverse materials to suggest that she is still moving, still experimenting. This, of course, is the hardest thing to do – to stay open to fresh possibilities, rather than trying to develop a brand. Clippinger has opened up a path for herself, with a variety of paths branching off from it. The collages and tapestry add something new to this already accomplished artist’s growing oeuvre.

Martha Clippinger: ¡Loteria! continues at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (29 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 3.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...