Eleanor Wood has skirted the periphery of Minimalism for her entire career, fine-tuning her obsessive, hypersensitive and exquisite miniature technique. In 2002 she moved from her native England to California, and the displacement served as a catalyst for a body of work that demonstrates a departure from her previous practice and a rift with Minimalist orthodoxy.
The works in the current exhibit, Working from Both Sides, divide sharply between those on paper and those on linen. The fragility and apparent age of the former series (Boundaries, Edges, Parallels) tempers their insistent sense of order — order that we feel rests on implicit but radical contradictions. There is a consistent undermining of the relationship of the image to the paper’s edges that cultivates deliberate uncertainty about what constitutes the image. This results in an unexpected union of Abstract Expressionism’s negation of geometric hierarchy and Minimalism’s emphasis on precision and compactness.
The dominant grid format employed by Wood, albeit subtly subverted on occasion, might be expected to brace itself against the edges of the support to assert its completeness and finality. However her work defies this expectation, establishing the colored rectangles in singles or couples far enough from the paper’s edge, suggesting that any proportion, other than the insistent but nuanced proportion contained in the grid, is secondary. Each work embraces a sense of infinitely plotted spatial extension, while at the same time instantiating a finite, intricate, insistent, rigidly contained, eye-catching, hypnotic singularity.
The most significant proportion might be the relative thickness of the image, which is built out in multiple layers to the scale of its dimensions. Thus, if these images measured 8.5 x 8.5 feet instead of inches, the colored rectangle would be at least two inches thick to retain this proportion!
This sense of proportion is further exaggerated in the recent pictures on Belgian linen (Limits and Crossings), painted as a single group of 24 eight-inch squares. Here the stretchers themselves are deep in comparison to the size of the format, and the materials now project even more from the support, an assertion of physicality that seemed on the point of dissolving in the works on paper. The imagery (usually horizontal bands or lines) no longer floats but tends to grip the support with concentrated tenacity, often wrapping around one or both sides, which are now an active part of the image itself.
This might seem rather quotidian and materialistic after the ethereal whisperings of the earlier work, but her new-found muscularity is quickly subverted when these objects are viewed at close range. What had, at a distance, beguiled with implications of weaving, tapestry and knitting, with the linen openly confessing its textile-ness, now brings us up short as we realize that, despite these expectations, most of the raised edges are not woven or knitted but drawn in some way. Wood says many of these horizontal bars are created by applying multiple layers of colored wax (or oil bar), by masking off bare strips of canvas or by applying color through very narrow gaps.
The result of this tension between the unabashed physicality of the linen and its support on the one hand and the elusiveness of the surface treatments on the other is a kind of playful but committed unraveling of expectations, leading us to subtly doubt what we’re seeing.
This, I would suggest, is an unexpected inflection of the orthodox Minimalist lexicon, an inflection which is further enriched by the arrangement of the squares in larger collective grids that, through the connections and repetitions established, suggests nothing less than an alphabet, akin to the trigrams of the I Ching or Saussure’s chain of signifiers in which each link (each canvas in this case) gains meaning from its relationship to the others, while simultaneously abdicating autonomous significance. Thus, the central achievement of Wood’s recent work is exactly this uncompromisingly pictorial engagement with some of the key issues that vitiate Minimalist discourse, particularly the relationship of Minimalism to meaning and signification.