“Geometry Reloaded” by Lilly Wei, NY ARTS Vol. 10 No. 5-6 May – June 2005
Artist and curator Julie Karabenick has gathered together 12 artists who share her deep interest in painting, geometry and structure. Each of them, including Karabenick, is represented by one work in the exhibition, “Engaging the Structural.” Most of the works are easel-sized, that is, not too large nor too small, not dependent upon extreme scale to make a point. Five of the works are classic painting rectangles in size and proportions, and as such, neutral in shape. The other six are square, a shape that is also neutral, at equilibrium and stable. The two exceptions are an elongated horizontal rectangle —which is actually a double square —and a relief-like construction. The formats in these works, however, yield to the primacy of the painting; the subject of these works is not the frame, not the support, and the structure under discussion is the structure within the painting. Without exception, these are all retinal works. Geared to visuality, vested in formal concerns and perceptual strategies, their sources rooted in Cubism, Neo-Plasticism, Minimalism, Pattern and Design and other modernist movements, these paintings are almost all non-objective works with no appropriative tropes, no irony and only a passing interest in merging geometric abstraction with representation or with narrative. Color, shape, line and what these formal elements can be made to do continue to obsess these hard-wired painters and geometricians. Still entrenched in their chosen terrain, still enthralled by its mysteries and possibilities, they are not about to decamp anytime soon.
There is a wonderfully wide range of style and sensibility in these paintings, from stripes to grids to variations and combinations of geometric figures that are straight and curved, hard-edged and soft, analytical and expressive, simple and complex. As a psychologist and artist, Karabenick is fascinated by the primal power that geometric figures continue to exert. For Karabenick, who is passionate about geometric form and pattern, one impulse in organizing “Engaging the Structural” was to show the diversity of contemporary geometric abstraction and to marvel at the continued vitality of this historic tradition. Artists, Karabenick proves, are still drawn to the richness of its syntax, a syntax that seems inexhaustible.
Two of the most reductive of the artists here are Timothy App and Tim McFarlane. App is a latter day minimalist with architectural inclinations. His “Lair,” a 44″ square of black, white, grey and tan colored forms, might be interpreted as an asymmetrically balanced pattern of regular and irregular shapes set against a warmed ground, or a series of regular shapes that overlap each other. It might also be seen as a schematized, modernist interior with a cool light that touches on the poetics of the void. Like all the abstractions here, “Lair” (or does App mean Liar, as all art is, in some ways) can be perceived in a number of ways.
Tim McFarlane’s “Here/There,” on the other hand, is an homage to–or deconstruction of–the stripe, another modernist standard. McFarlane’s three darkly striped, vertical blocks, each a different height and width, abut each other, like city buildings, shoulder to shoulder. The upper quadrant of the panel is left blank and it is alternatively a negative space or a positive shape. Its main function, however, is to focus attention on the striped planes, emphasizing the architectonic divisions within the square and those divisions shifting relationships, shifting alliances.
Vincent Romaniello’s top to bottom vertical stripes are of a different order, alternating between thick and thin, between a range of reds from deep to pale, intercut by Barnett Newman-like “zips” of light and dark. Layered with a gauzy wash of white here and there and splattered by dots and dashes of white, their placement dictated by chance and gravity, Romaniello combines the geometric with a looser, more fluid touch, setting his sequence of bands and stripes into a rhythmically arresting, visually syncopated movement that traverses the surface of his painting.
From stripes the exhibition moves to the grid, arguably the emblematic motif of modernism. Siri Berg’s version of it is executed in oil on linen, a vertical rectangle that reads like a color chart, only much more nuanced. Consisting of a dozen units divided into three rows of four rectangles, the top and bottom rows are graduated shades of luminous grey, warm and cool, that emit a shimmer of light where their edges meet. The center row is yellow, orange, red and a red purple, the hues suggesting a brilliant, rosy-fingered dawn by means of the purest non-objectivity.
“Roza,” Gail Gregg’s meticulously crafted, warm little 12″ grid, is an encaustic painting on panel. Partitioned by vertical bands of salmon pink crossed by thin horizontal lines, the resulting squares are each partitioned again by a lengthwise stripe, then each section is stroked with fine, repeating vertical lines to create an intricately textured ground that flickers in response to light. The surface configuration suggests a textile pattern, a gameboard, an aerial view, things cultivated, crafted by the human hand, created by the human will and imagination. More to the point, “Roza,” like all of the works here, demonstrates a utopian belief in the sense of order, art’s antidote to the chaos and terror of life, a chaos that has reasserted itself time and again, as it does now, in daily catastrophic events.
“Uttar 250,” part of a continuing series by Joanne Mattera, is the most luxuriant painting here, inspired by the colors of India, by traditional Indian miniature painting with its saffrons, roses, vermilions, indigos, emeralds, cinnabars. Also encaustic, its version of the grid consists of three stacks of more or less even strokes of colors which in turn drip paint, like syrup. This is a voluptuous painting, its grid about to melt down, it seems, into pure, irresistible paint.
Julie Karabenick, on the other hand, takes the constructivist grid and explodes it. Using a lexicon of only squares and rectangles, beginning with a square module within a square field, Karabenick varies the dimensions of these basic shapes, her practice intent on proving the infinite diversity of purposeful limitation. The colors are flat, restrained but when juxtaposed, create their own scintillation. Through a system of carefully calculated color interactions, a kind of optical chain reaction, Karabenick’s pixellated pointillism gives a new spin to dynamic equilibrium.
Both Christine Vaillancourt’s “Matter Data III” and W.C. Richardson’s “Cold Reasons” are strikingly patterned. Vaillancourt delimits the frontal plane of her painting with four cleanly contoured rectangles of white or black that obscure what is behind them. They are painted over a crowd of smaller black, white and colored circles, ovals and squares that surround them, floating in an indeterminate spatial field. Layered and overlapped to create an illusion of space, Vaillancourt’s geometries have drift and buoyancy.
Richardson’s alkyd painting, on the other hand, is a tightly ordered square, its outermost plane fixed by four vertical rows of opaque white dots. Behind them appears a crackled, porous, red-brown drawing that resembles a cross section of a plant, say. Then there are an interlocked series of angled, double-lobed shapes placed like stylized leaves on a stem, one in black, the other white, reversing between image and ground, positive and negative, surface and depth; they could also read as a flat, biomorphic design in the same plane. However they are decoded, Richardson’s dialectically constructed painting elegantly presents a number of perceptual conundrums.
The last four painters are more difficult to group. Howard R. Barnhart’s work is a relief, the shapes cut-out and layered. However, it is the chromatic contrast and interaction that interests him most, the weight and measure of one color against the other that determines the shapes and structural integrity of the construction. Barnhart’s “Composition” a joyously colored, interlocked puzzle of pastels, recalls a sculpture as much as a painting, and as such, more literally realizes the structural engagement that is the theme of this exhibition.
Marjorie L. Mikasen’s painting, “Rasa 3” ( rasa is Hindu for “the essence of”), is what the artist calls a “stereopair,” defined as a “side-by-side image that is meant to be viewed using free vision or cross-eyed vision.” Part of an ongoing series, “Rasa 3,” evenly divided into two sections, gives us a pair of images to focus on and merge, their translucent architectonic structures based on a profusion of rectangles and triangles. Rising against a field that is partially patterned with curvilinear forms, “Rasa” suggests a schematic plan for a futuristic complex and demonstrates Mikasen’s deep involvement with the physiological and psychological processes of perception.
Cecily Kahn’s lilting painting, “Bind,”differs from most of the other works in this show in its softness and tempered geometry. Less hard-edged and analytical, its composition is more intuitively arrived at, spontaneous, looser in assembly. It has a beguiling insouciance, as well as the look of collage and montage, its shapes irregular with a mix of textures, patterns, marks and strokes. Kahn says she likes to combine the geometric with poured images and more organic, naturalistic forms which, for her, reflect the dichotomies of urban life.
Laurie Fendrich’s tautly conceived oil painting, “Jeanie,” with its distinctive palette of artificial colors and faultless surface, is based on a vocabulary of geometric forms with numerous art historical inferences, if not quite references. In this particular painting, a rakish, double oval–a kind of barbell on its side–suggests a female silhouette balanced by a rather bulbous shape that might read as a vessel or a mirror, an escaped “genie” or a nod to Picasso’s “Girl in the Mirror.” Beneath are a scattering of rectangles broken down into bands of different colors, designs that look like a color key to the painting, emphasizing, as this show does throughout, that painting–whatever else it is–is still formal, an invention, a specific arrangement of color, line, shape, light, movement and space that is, for those who love it, irreplaceable.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes for several publications in the United States and abroad. A frequent contributor to Art in America, she is also a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific.