Many artists have stared at, painted and even feigned leaping into The Void. But few do so as energetically as Phil Amrhein. In Black Paintings, Amrhein combines amorphously shaped blobs with frenzied layers of lattice work that burst from darkness into a tense marriage of warped grids and biomorphic shapes. The power flexed by this symbiosis borders on the primordial.
While the action embedded in these obsessive works is explicit, the mechanics of how it’s delivered seem more rooted in tribal practices of repeated marking than in anything expressionistic. Yet they neither mimic ancient practices nor place the artist in a faux-naïf position. By placing nothingness smack-up against “ somethingness” in the form of cross-hatched, ladder-like conveyances that we instinctively follow, Amrhein forces viewers to grapple with the physical and psychic reality of the void. It’s a theme that runs, like a haunting refrain from the dawn of modernism to the present, and in Amrhein’s work it finds a contemporary voice – one with echoes of Terry Winters, particularly in earlier works of Amrhein’s that preceded Black Paintings.
The 19 pieces here are, for the most part, flatly rendered. They are occasionally enlivened by scant build-ups of pigment in their dark centers; but in the main, these affect-free zones afford the eye few tactile pleasures. Here and there, on his larger canvases, Amrhein scrapes away pigment to reveal a bit of dark under painting. He does the same to the exclamatory vertical and horizontal bands to impart a silkscreen-like effect. And in the vellum works, the transparency of the media lends a cloudy gauziness, which when sandwiched between layers of plexiglass secured by highly visible screws, he adds a touch of industrial chic that I find appealing.