An installation view of David Goerk’s “Recent Work” at Howard Scott Gallery (all images courtesy the galleries)

I set out with the intention of seeing these shows, so I wouldn’t call it synchronicity, but the simultaneous exhibitions of David Goerk and Martha Clippinger in the same building, just one floor apart, did get me thinking about art making that is concerned with the realm between painting and sculpture — from della Robbia’s bas reliefs to early modernism (Hans Arp) to contemporary art (Stuart Arends, Ellsworth Kelly, Jim Lee, and Richard Tuttle).

Goerk’s “R/W 5.8.11” (2011) (click to enlarge)

While their work and praxis are very different, Goerk and Clippinger make objects that are neither — technically speaking — sculptures nor paintings, but are informed by both. One could find other affinities linking them, but I think that would be stretching the point, as well as diluting the specificity of their work.

David Goerk uses wood, enamel, gesso and encaustic to makes small constructed paintings — only one piece was larger than twelve inches — in which he uses two colors, with white being predominant. The second color is usually a primary or secondary hue.

His constructed paintings tend to consist of one or more planes extending from a box-like structure — a construction that draws the viewer incrementally into an awareness of its semi-enclosed space. (In this exhibition, “6.1.2011” (2011) was the only plane that was directly attached to the wall.)

As this sparse description should suggest, Goerk draws a seemingly endless array of possibilities from a plane and a geometric solid, using only white and another color, that form an interlocking but discrete set of distinct views and glimpses.

David Goerk, “B/W 5.09” (2009) (click to enlarge)

For all the geometry and restraint, the experience is analogous to lying in bed with your lover and not being able to see your beloved’s face in its entirety, yet still aware of its varying textures and minute shifts. The intimate scale of these works, which can fit easily inside one’s cupped hands, serves to underscore the artist’s joining of Eros with seeing. And here I would go further and advance that the “instinct for self-preservation” is also at the heart of these works, which reveal themselves by stages and are never fully open or completely visible.

Goerk exhibited the works in groups, with each emphasizing one hue — green, blue, and red. Within each cluster the works were placed at different heights on the wall, inviting closer scrutiny. Color and materiality are inseparable, which is one reason why the work demands closer attention. By determining the material identity of a color — a thin turquoise encaustic band extending from a white plane’s narrow edge — Goerk provokes the viewer to experience the work as an interlocking combination of discrete parts, all of which are dependent on something else.

Goerk’s “OW #1” (2011) (click to enlarge)

Ideally, the viewer discovers the structure by examining it, front and sides, beneath and, if possible, top. From the sunken screws to the colored material used to fill some holes and not others, everything is considered. At no point is the piece completely visible.

Goerk maintains a lively dialogue with two wonderful, still neglected artists, Mary Martin and Burgoyne Diller, along with Robert Ryman. However, and I mean this emphatically, his work does not feel derivative or overly indebted. In fact, I would advance that he has cleared ample space for himself at the table at which a number of loosely related artists are seated, and that he is spiritedly holding up his end of the conversation.

Goerk’s ability to isolate a color, as well keep all the parts in play, draws the viewer in. The gallery (or containing space) falls away, as we become acquainted with the box-like forms extending from the wall, at once small and confident.  Time is slowed down and seeing becomes episodic. Give them enough time, and you will become reacquainted with your interior spaces, the nooks and crannies where all sorts of things occur. In this exhibition, Goerk enables us to disengage from the hurly-burly world — where distractions are routinely passed off as being important events — and enter a space where reflection is possible. That’s no small thing.

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An installation view of Martha Clippinger’s “Hopscotch” show at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

This was Martha Clippinger’s debut exhibition. In some ways her work is the temperamental opposite of David Goerk’s. If his work offers us a chance at intimacy and introspection, Clippinger’s mostly small constructions are like exuberant bundles of energy that you would want to go to a dance party with, especially if you were at all shy. Her work is friendly, outgoing and unapologetic about its inherent eccentricities. They might be small, but some of the pieces have sharp star-like points. The combination of modest size, implied danger and confidence is magnetic.

Clippinger’s “View Askew” (2011)

Clippinger placed the work on the floor, at various heights on the wall, near the ceiling, and above the doorway. You had to keep your eyes open and look everywhere if you wanted to see what was in the exhibition. And that turned out to be refreshing, rather than didactic or coy.

Made mostly from scraps that one would find in the discard pile at a lumberyard, Clippinger joins and paints separate plywood pieces — strips, sections, oddly shaped remnants — into largely flat and layered planes or thin verticals attached to the wall. Often the shapes themselves generated the boldly colored, repetitive stripes and waves that cover their surfaces.

Martha Clippinger, “Into the groove” (2010) (click to enlarge)

Clippinger’s defiant palette of solid colors reminded me of the wacky intuitiveness of kindergarten and Southern outsider art mixed with Josef Albers’s formal intelligence. In “Into the Groove” (2010), which was painted on a slightly off, rectangular piece of wood, with a small circular indentation punched into it and two strips of corrugated cardboard adhered to its surface, Clippinger echoes the scalloped edge of one cardboard strip by painting a similarly scalloped form in black along the painting’s left edge.

Extending from the black form are two large black triangles, which have been painted in the painting’s upper left and bottom right corner. Within the remaining space, and conforming to the triangles’ tilting edge, the artist has painted four diagonal bands rising from bottom left to upper right; orange, pink, yellow, and peach. They are colors toy companies might think of using to signify a doll’s ethnicity.

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Might it not be time to consider the impact that Thomas Nozkowski’s decision to work on 16 x 20 inch, store-bought canvas board in the early 1970s has had on subsequent generations? He endowed modest scale with a ferocious intelligence, at once serious and playful. And, although he worked small, he didn’t try to connect himself to early American modernists, such as Marsden Hartley or Arthur Dove. He didn’t show the labor that went into his work because that was nostalgic and sentimental, and, let’s face it, harkened back to Willem de Kooning and Milton Resnick. He wanted to put everything in his work without being sentimental or parodic.

As the art world celebrated the return to representational painting in the early 1980s, lavishing much of their attention on Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Eric Fischl, Nozkowski stuck to his guns and quietly gained an underground following of younger artists that included, among others, James Siena and Chris Martin, both of whom have emerged in the past decade.

Goerk and Clippinger are also insolent in their modesty. And yet, like Siena and Martin, they understand that Nozkowski’s decision was both a permission and a challenge, that it didn’t offer them a style to learn from, but advanced the idea that they too could open their own doors, walk through them, and begin their own idiosyncratic dialogs with the work of others, which they have clearly done.

One of the invigorating things about these shows — Goerk and Clippinger recognize that you can’t look back, and that only the fearful keep looking over their shoulders. They are neither looking for institutional approval nor trying to find a little niche on the shelf of received ideas and views.  Better to be impudent and on your own.  That is how you might find your own authority.

David Goerk’s Recent Work continues at the Howard Scott Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 7th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) until February 25.

Martha Clippinger’s Hopscotch continues at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until February 4.

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,...