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Theodora Varnay Jones @ SJICA

Transparency # 38 and 32, (2009, 2007), acrylic polymer, pigments, graphite and wood structure.  Photo: David M. Roth

Expressiveness is not a quality we normally associate with Minimalism. Its reliance on “objective” (and occasionally mathematically derived) formulas for creating material presence has always cast the practice in a cold light. But must this always be the case? Might it be possible to take Minimalism’s most salient features – insistent geometries, impenetrable surfaces and its penchant for modular, repeating units – and inject new substance? A little feeling, perhaps? Manifold, a 10-year survey of works by post-minimalist Theodora Varnay Jones, answers with an emphatic yes.

"Indistinction #4B", 2007, paper, graphite, color pencil, acrylic polymer, wood.

For the most part, Varnay Jones sticks to the tropes of Minimalism’s classic period (1965-1975); but she brings to it something we usually don’t see in this realm: a prodigious level of craft. Her work is so detailed and full of her precise handiwork, that it might qualify as sui generis were it not shadowed by the influences of Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse and Sol Lewitt. This isn’t always a bad thing. In four pieces from her Transparency series, she coats wall-mounted wooden boxes with a semi-translucent gel that reveals, at varying levels of opacity, layers of geometric patterning that shimmer from below in a kind of iridescent haze that is impossible to fully penetrate or bring into focus. The surfaces are reflective, refractive and interior-lit, all at the same time. Acrylic polymer and fiberglass are what enable these dislocations; yet the pieces, no matter how hard you stare, remain perceptual mazes.  

The aptly titled Indistinctions series toys inventively with the famous Martin grid, by inserting into it hand-painted and pencil-drawn dots whose edges seem to ooze, like bacteria multiplying in a Petri dish. Sequestered in their requisite spaces, the dots, which bring to mind Chuck Close’s pictorial elements, set up a hypnotic rhythm that’s broken by irregularities in shape, texture and color. This interaction, of indeterminate cellular forms within imprecise “lines”, makes for a pleasurably off-kilter viewing experience, especially in pieces like Indistinction #6 where the everything is obfuscated by a coating of beeswax and delicate skeins of fiberglass mesh. 

"Transparency #27", 2009, paper, graphite, pigments, acrylic polymer, fiberglass, plexiglass and wood structure; "Ghost", 2009, plexiglass, acrylic and mirrored Plexiglass.  Photos: David M. Roth

Varnay Jones’ most prominent 3-D pieces – three Lewitt-like sculptures comprised of see-through boxes, a Judd-influenced grid of 48 wall-mounted wood boxes scored by burning incense sticks, and two paraffin and beeswax constructions that recall Hesse — hew closely to their roots, but not enough to detract from anyone’s pleasure. Various subtleties see to that. For example: The false shadows affixed to Transparency #27, a chair-shaped geometric sculpture, add a touch of unexpected humor; while the inclusion of mirrors in Ghost, a Plexiglass-encased floor piece, extends the cubist metaphor into infinity.
Such departures from hide-bound mannerisms show that post-minimalism, at least in Varnay Jones’ hands, can not only inspire, it can push right past the boundaries that minimalists once claimed as the end-all in their quest for purity: a fact-based materiality devoid of expression and feeling. Varnay Jones, at her best, displays an abundance of both qualities.
Theodora Varnay Jones: Manifold, through February 20, 2010 at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.
Conversation with the artist: Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, 7-9 p.m. @ SJICA
Varnay Jones is represented in San Francisco by Don Soker Contemporary, which has a show of the artist’s work up through Dec. 30, 2009.


One Response to “Theodora Varnay Jones @ SJICA”

  1. Great info, thanks for the post!


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