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Abstraction Like Fire at Gowanus Open Studios

Herman James, "13-5M-25" (2013) (photograph by author)
Herman James, “13-5M-25” (2013) (photograph by author)

The locals say the Gowanus canal changes colors, depending on the whims of the pollution. Sometimes it even glows at night. But artists don’t mind working next to this superfund site because it keeps the rents cheap. The Gowanus Open Studios 2013 event invited us into many of the area’s recently converted industrial buildings that are now sub-divided into these tiny shoeboxes where emerging artists are cutting their teeth and trying to make a go at it in New York. It was a lavish opportunity to take in the latest trends, stretches of the imagination, and creative risks on the artistic edge of 2013.

One trend that stood out was that of abstract paintings with the formal sensibility of fire. It’s less about literal depictions of fire. It’s more about swaths of color that glow like raging bonfires, lines that flicker like the tips of flames, chromatic intensity worthy of an inferno, and compositions with a sense of movement where forms leap and dance like flames. Fire may have its literary baggage but it kept coming back as the most accurate word to describe the style of the abstract art that was exciting in Gowanus.

Now there are some who say abstract painting is dead. They see modernism as a graveyard of abstract art movements, regarding these works as zombies giving botched second lives to dead artistic ideas. But abstraction is older than Rome and younger than finger painting. It’s a constant in human creativity and its history. So it’s very naive to claim that abstraction could ever fade from relevance. Every generation faces down the question of how to capture the magic of abstract forms without getting dragged down with the baggage of the past anew. Painters in Gowanus seem to be responding to this eternal challenge by cranking up the heat.

Alex Nuñez, "Beyonce is really killing it right now" (2013) (photo courtesy of the artist)
Alex Nuñez, “Beyonce is really killing it right now” (2013) (photo courtesy of the artist)

Herman James‘ work at Gowanus Loft hits upon a dense psychedelic sensibility. His paintings abound with these whiskery forms that look like the tips of flames. For example in “13-5M-25” (2013), flame forms of black, yellow, pink, black and white swirl around like the coronas of these sun forms in the color field. There’s a flickering motion that dances across the entire picture plane.

Whereas James’s abstraction captures the tips of flames, Alex Nuñez‘s paintings capture the heart of a raging polychromatic bonfire. For example, in “Beyonce is really killing it right now” (2013) up on the walls of the artist’s studio, there is a conflagration of purple, orange, yellow, and gold merging with glitter worthy of its Beyonce’s namesake. The lines have this jumping crackling quality. And the orange markings look like fire flowers.

Alex Nuñez, "The Life Aquatic" (2013) (courtesy of the artist)
Alex Nuñez, “The Life Aquatic” (2013) (courtesy of the artist)

At first, the flame metaphor might seem like a stretch in Nuñez’s other big work in the studio, “The Life Aquatic” (2013). The painter was playing with the motifs of coral reefs and aquatic flora. But the composition has this bonfire rising quality to it, where a spire of half navy and half lavender rises up before fanning out into several smaller flame-like tendrils. It’s the formal structure of fire. And the colors are brightly fluorescent like colored fire.

The fire flower motif that mixes streaks of colored flame with floral and vegetal forms also shows up in the work of Giovanni Forlino. It looks as though there is this blazing forest fire of red streaks behind the flower. The red looks saturated because it is, in fact, super saturated. The painter doesn’t find most colors vibrant enough, so he buys extra pigment to mix in with the colors that come in the tubes. The result is works that burn with intense color.

In another work by Forlino, “In the Mushy Swamp of Love” (2013) there also appears to be a polychromatic forest fire of yellow and magenta flame like forms in the background. The glowing parrot may well be immune to effects of the colored fire, but it’s so bright and iridescent, it may plausibly have phoenix genes. Its big neon green beak holds its own against the rest of the picture, while the head feathers have this glowing blaze quality. Whether or not the artist literally meant to put the bird in a flaming rainforest, the bright glowing colors and jumping lines again seem best described in the language of fire.

Giovanni Forlino, "Swamp - Part 14" (2013) (photograph by author)
Giovanni Forlino, “Swamp – Part 14” (2013) (photograph by author)

Hermann Mejia similarly renders a horse with blue flame-like forms in the midst of a forest in “Entangled” (2013). It’s like a bluish phoenix horse. Are the orange triangles on the left evoking flames and suggesting that perhaps the horse is trapped and in danger? The artist said he likes the ambiguity in the work. All the forms in the picture are depicted with this flickering quality of broken brushwork that looks like the flares of fire. It’s hard to tell if the horse is afraid before the orange flames, aware of it at all, or if it’s all just an illusion.

Rachel Schmidhofer proves that plants are just as artistically susceptible to phoenix gene splicing as animals in her christmas tree series up at her studio. In “Sunset Pine” (2013), a pine tree decorated for christmas emits colored light from nearly every needle. The background is bright orange evoking fire. There’s a clever use of black stenciling to convey the tree form and keep the glowing colors separate. It’s a half-tree half phoenix that only an artist could imagine.

Rachel Schmidhofer, "Sunset Pine" (2013) (courtesy of the artist)
Rachel Schmidhofer, “Sunset Pine” (2013) (courtesy of the artist)

So much of this work has been about bright vibrant color, Ai Campbell‘s ink work was a refreshing opportunity to take in flame forms in black and white. Although drained of color they might look more like smoke. The artist explained that her interest was in natural organic form and pusing the ink’s effects — and even mixing it with alcohol to get a certain shading. This may be like a Rorschach test where you see fire if you want to. But the works looked like the gray ink depictions of a dragon’s breathe of fire with that interplay of organic forms, curves, and jumping lines. Up close on perceives this white ink outline layer that adds an extra level of patterning and complexity.

Yes, fire emerged as a visual idea to unite much of the the exciting abstract work in Gowanus. It would be absurd to say that all the artists were gazing at the hearth intently like Hestia and seeking to literally recreate fire in their work. But flickering lines, leaping motions, glowing bright color, and nebulous forms that looks like the sun’s corona or the heart of the bonfire kept showing up. So whether or not fire is literally a reference, it’s a formal pattern that is energizing so much recent abstraction. The artistic spirt of the phoenix is rising.

Ai Campbell, "Inside in 02" (2013) (photograph courtesy of artist)
Ai Campbell, “Inside in 02” (2013) (photograph courtesy of artist)

Gowanus Open Studios took place October 18-20 in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

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