Don Voisine is an exquisitely refined, planar geometric painter. He works in oil and acrylic on wood panels that range from 12-inch squares to horizontal rectangles measuring 53 by 80 inches, which is about the largest he can physically move on his own. Within the limits of his scale, which tends toward the intimate, and his reductive, hard-edged geometric vocabulary — I don’t recall ever seeing a curved form in the years that I have been following and writing about his work — he has explored difference and similarity in a way that brings to mind the music of Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Geometric forms that are opaque and transparent, distinct and nuanced, cold and hot, brushed and smooth populate his sensuously restrained paintings. Within these parameters, he has broadened his possibilities incrementally, like a climber scaling a steep mountain with no obvious or visible passage.
My anticipation of these changes and recognition of where he has gotten over the past three decades are among my reasons for seeing Don Voisine at McKenzie Fine Art (May 14 – June 27, 2021).
Since 1992, when Voisine first began painting a centered black form surrounded by a border, he has pushed slowly and deliberately against these self-defined constrictions without ever completely letting go of them. In 1999, he added a diagonal into his compositions, making spatiality a component of his work. Further changes include making the centered black form a saturated red or electric blue. His use of concentrated colors, whether for this centered form, the narrow bands between the outer borders and inner form, or the outer borders, focuses our attention on the different contrasts, shifts, and pressure points happening throughout the painting.
I have often found myself marveling at his ability to differentiate a plane’s materiality by making one glossy and opaque and another translucent, which pulls me closer to the surface. Voisine is a restrained materialist who does not resort to excess to make his point.
In his current exhibition, I was struck by three things that underscore his innate restlessness within the confines of his well-established vocabulary. The first is his use of frottage, in which he rubs away the color he has applied to a clearly defined area, leaving a ghostly physical presence. The second is his precise placement of two stacked, different-sized rectangles within the central, bordered area, as in “Strike Twice” (2021); in each of the distinct, abutted areas, Voisine paints two different but seemingly related triangles, suggesting movement, as one might see in a children’s flip book or a stop-action film. The third is the dialogue he seems to have initiated with two very different mid-century America painters, Myron Stout and Allan D’Arcangelo, both of whom are outliers.
In the one-foot square panel “Center Square” (2021), Voisine has painted a dense black hexagon whose top and bottom edges are lined by a cerulean blue strip and a red band. Because of the borders, viewers are likely to read the hexagon as a parallelogram whose top and bottom edges have been cropped. The upward tilt of these edges suggests movement held in check, while the cropping leads credence to the feeling that we are looking at a partially obscured form.
In counterpoint to this, Voisine has placed a grainy gray square within the hexagon. He achieved the square’s grainy texture by wiping away the skin of black paint he had applied, exposing the panel’s stained surface. Color, materiality, and ghostliness tug at our attention, introducing a carefully choreographed tension into the painting.
There are three different material manifestations of black in the painting: the shiny black rectangle; the matte black areas on either side of the hexagon and extending to the painting’s right and left edges; and the rubbed-down square, which adds a note of melancholy to the painting. It seems to me that the opticality of the blue strip against the red band works in contrast to the tonal shifts caused by the three interdependent blacks, with each grouping enhancing the other.
In “Strike Twice,” Voisine stacks two different-sized rectangles within a vertical format measuring 30 by 24 inches. As with “Center Square,” a border, here consisting of a narrow green strip and a thick turquoise strip, is above and below the two black grounds. On these grounds, Voisine has painted two white triangles. For all their similarity, each triangle is unique and separate from the other.
The shift from the large triangle on the glossy lower ground to the smaller one on the matte upper ground suggests movement and distance, even though both rectangles are on the same plane.
Distance and movement are thus conveyed through a change in hue and size, with perspective playing no role. I was reminded of D’Arcangelo’s geometric abstractions of a highway rising up the painting’s surface as it receded into the distance (something Mary Heilmann has also alluded to her in her work).
The difference is that D’Arcangelo used geometry and perspective to suggest a highway across an uninhabited stretch of America, and the driver’s isolation, while Voisine focuses on the juxtaposition of abstract forms and material shifts, which invite viewers to reflect upon the ways we see similarity and difference, stillness and change, stasis and movement.
In “Passage” (2021), which measures 38 by 48 inches, Voisine seems to be talking directly to a drawing, “Untitled” by Myron Stout (pencil on paper, 11 by 13 3/4 inches, 1977–79). Inspired by a view of the breakwater extending into the harbor, which Stout could have seen from the porch of his walk-up apartment in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he made a drawing in three shades of gray.
Stout divides the horizontal composition into two areas, a wide band running across the top, and a wider swath beneath, representing sky and ocean, respectively; the band is darker than what is below it. Extending in from the right side in the lower part of the bottom rectangle, Stout has drawn a narrow, darker gray band, representing the breakwater. Unlike many of his earlier drawings, which contained a curved, centrally placed biomorphic form, this one is strictly geometric and refers to something Stout saw many times. While he suppressed this connection with his reductive, geometric vocabulary, he did not deny its commanding presence.
In “Passage,” Voisine paints a dark gray bar extending in from the painting’s right side, against a glossy black horizontal rectangle set inside a deep blue hexagon, which is pressed at the top and bottom by an outer gray band edged on the inside by a gray-violet stripe.
The gray band against the large expanse of the glossy black ground suggest the unavoidable movement toward the future, even as the blue hexagon indicates an even larger, partially obscured form. I am not suggesting that Voisine is approaching the work from a metaphysical perspective, because I don’t think he is. Rather, like Stout, I think he is interested in exploring the nature of our attention, and whether or not we see the structures of our perceptions. Further, in his precisely choreographed explorations of material, of a directionally painted red band placed above a flat red band, do we see the difference in surface and tone? Are the reds the same or are they slightly different?
Voisine’s paintings reward careful looking and close scrutiny. In a larger, philosophical sense, they ask us to consider what we pay attention to and why. Do we want to look and look again or be distracted and move on? Do we want to become introspective or is surface and exterior all that matters? He knows you can’t have it both ways.
Don Voisine continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Manhattan) through June 27.
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