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Phil Amrhein @ Axis Gallery

Untitled, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 68 inches

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.

At the center of these works stand impenetrable masses of flat, black paint that assume quasi-representation “forms” resembling winged creatures, arrayed singularly or in hemispherical dyads or trios.  The surrounding ladder-like structures are so densely intertwined that they create a graphic, Constructivist feel — of irregular geometries that play on the surface as if self-animating. Whether they extend out to the edges (as in Amrhein’s works on paper and vellum) or are surrounded by exclamatory marks that, in his larger canvases bring to mind the electric exuberance of Keith Haring, these framing devices set up countervailing rhythms that pit angular dissonance against cool consonance.  They present viewers with two choices: step into the void or flee it. 
Both: Untilted, 2009, 20 x 15 inches. Left: AC/vellum. Right: AC/paper.

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. 

While the nuances of paint handling are clearly not Amrhein’s strong suit, his ability to orchestrate form, action and rhythm are more than enough to carry his ideas. 
Cover image: Untitled, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 30 inches.
Phil Amrhein, Black Paintings, through Nov. 1, 2009 at Axis Gallery, Sacramento.
Learn more about Phil Amrhein.


3 Responses to “Phil Amrhein @ Axis Gallery”

  1. Robert Ray says:


    Enjoyed your review of Phil Amrhein’s show…I thought it was exceptional. While in Davis, I stopped by the Pence Gallery and was pleased to see the show you curated for them. Well done.

    Best regards,

    Robert Ray


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