PHILADELPHIA — A few years ago, Evan Fugazzi began to feel that the colors in his paintings were “band-aids,” and that he needed to work strictly with black paint on white canvas to move forward as an artist. Fugazzi exhibited his works from this period in a 2016 exhibition at Gross McCleaf called In Situ. Fugazzi is well aware of the connection between these paintings and the work of Franz Kline, but if you ask Fugazzi he says that he consciously looked away from Kline for inspiration. He looked to poetry and music instead.
If Fugazzi’s current exhibition, In Color, at Gross McCleaf is any indication, he learned what he needed to for now. Color has become the driving force of this painter’s work. His aesthetic commitment calls to mind Stanley Whitney, who has continued to distinguish himself as a “call and response” painter. As the elder painter describes it in a biographical statement for the Berggruen Gallery, “One color calls forth another. Color dictates the structure, not the other way around.”
Fugazzi’s bucking of conventional notions of form is both liberating and inspiring — particularly considering his training at the very traditional Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His freedom becomes the viewer’s freedom. We aren’t beholden to the way that one line meets another. We are given the pleasure of experiencing how each color helps to define the others.
When he’s in the studio, Fugazzi tries “to be as shortsighted as possible,” as he put it in an interview with Jim Cory in the accompanying catalogue. This improvisatory approach is most apparent in a work such as “Bark” (2018). The painting has the vertical composition of a tree trunk, but Fugazzi is not interested in precisely rendering the texture or the color of tree bark. Instead, he approaches the layering of tree bark conceptually, translating the textures and typically brown tones into gradations of reds, whites, and blues.
Slippage between signifiers is another running theme in many of the works. “Read” (2018) performs its slippage in the title. It could be a command to sit and read, but it could just as easily be pronounced “red,” which references the painting’s predominant color. The work seems comfortable with either interpretation.
“Blinds” (2018), like “Bark,” is not interested in replicating its namesake in paint. The composition and use of color encourage us to perceive what could be a set of Venetian blinds as a chromatic range of yellow to blue to red, viewing the linear “blinds” as modular and inconsistent. These works seem to ask: What if we saw things this way, as a means to more deeply engage us in looking at our environments?
Color provides the structural support in Fugazzi’s work, but also, like a hinge on a door, it suggests movement. The intensity of the bright pinks in “Loom” (2018) seems to derive from a solid green line on the middle left. There is no doubt that the pink in this painting could set anyone’s rods and cones ablaze. But without that green hinge, the painting would have minimal depth and ferocity.
“Eve” (2018) is more subdued. Apart from the narrow strip of red on the right hand edge, dark blues and purples predominate the canvas. The title suggests at least two readings. Perhaps the most obvious is its reference to Adam and Eve. The painting’s red, like the apple of yore, beckons the eye, but there are far more compelling issues in the bulk of the painting. Across the left and bottom edges are wide, deep blue lines; another wide line just below the top seems part of the same family. A thinner wash of paint coats the gap between these lines, the linen almost peeking through in some areas. It becomes clear at this point that Fugazzi has reimagined one of the common chestnuts of painting, from Romanticism onwards, the sky at sunset. Without the title “Eve” the painting would be something else entirely.
Perhaps Fugazzi’s skill as an abstract painter derives from his background as a representational painter and as a former student of architecture. Both require a thorough understanding of spatial relationships. What I see as hinges in these paintings could also be perceived as support beams in a structure.
As Fugazzi says to Cory in their interview, at the core of an architect’s training is “rigor, pragmatism, and consideration of beauty.” Pragmatism is a concern I have never heard from an abstract painter. To be pragmatic is to be focused on a goal and mostly undeterred by emotional interference. It means getting the job done. Fugazzi’s work suggests he’s aware that he has a purpose in these paintings. But they do not feel cold or overly technical in their execution. They compel us to look, and look again. I feel that the pinks in “Loom” are still burning my eyes. And I say, bring it on.
Evan Fugazzi continues at Gross McCleaf (127 S. Sixteenth Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through March 30.