Were he not so resolutely modernist in his approach to painting, Mark Emerson might be credibly linked to the Neo Geo clan. But the truth is that he is a formalist to the core whose influences run closer to early Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Bridget Riley than to, say, Jean Baudrillard, the French theorist who, in the ‘80s, pulled Peter Halley (and a lot of other people) onto the whole simulacrum bandwagon. Significantly, Emerson was included in Neo-Mod, a traveling exhibition mounted by the Crocker Art Museum in 2004 that leaned heavily on design-influenced abstractionists to demonstrate how, among other things, mid-century styles persist. Emerson's innovation was to successfully fuse Op and Geometric Abstraction.
As such, his concerns are color, space, form, boundaries and rhythm – rhythm especially. Since 1999, he’s included the word in the titles of six of his solo shows, and in this one, The Color of Rhythm, he dials up the tempos and the tonalities to a near-fever pitch. Never mind that much of the art world considers geometric abstraction passé. Emerson’s been working this territory for many years, unfazed. Early in the last decade, for example, he made trance-inducing color-field paintings built around shadowy, Op-ish lines that dissolved distinctions between foreground and background in ways that made your head buzz. (Think: Terry Riley’s In C.) These were followed by louder, more fragmented mash-ups of geometric patterns whose harsh juxtapositions recalled cinematic jump cuts, jarringly spliced, but never challenging the boundaries of the canvases.
The current works do. In the three large canvases that dominate this show (Falling Down, Yeah, No Yeah and It’s Like This) you can see certain organizing devices at work – most notably oversized columns, squares and triangles — but they offer little guidance when it comes to navigating the labyrinthine spaces demarked by the endless subdivisions into which the artist parses these forms. Emerson begins each painting with a small sketch. These he translates to canvas by taping off segments and then rolling paint across the open spaces, occasionally distressing the surfaces with trowels and pieces of plastic that he pulls off the canvas while the paint is wet. He repeats the process over and over, further subdividing each basic form until a geometry text’s worth of different shapes (rhomboids, parallelograms, trapezoids, polygons) fills the canvas. The result is an enticing visual chaos. Patterns emerge and then disappear. Paths appear fleetingly only to end abruptly. And pictorial depth, what little there is of it, comes from small color swatches that shine out as anchor points, beacons in a sea of interlocking and interpenetrating hard angles that run out to the edges of the canvas. This Cubist- and design-influenced game of thrust and parry makes for field paintings that appear to be overflowing their supports.
In her minimalist photographs, Penny Olson presents something of a retro-modernist vision as well. The difference, however, has to do with her process. At first glance her pictures bring to mind color-saturated versions of Agnes Martin’s tightly drawn grids — or at least her unframed inkjet prints do; the ones Olson sandwiches between sheets of cast resin present a more luminous vision of the same source material, looking as if it had ripened in a Petri dish and then been set out in the sun. The actual sources for these images are straight digital photos of landscapes and flowers from which the artist extracts slivers measuring a scant 1 pixel x 1/240th of an inch. These she stacks vertically and horizontally to form grids that are, somewhat ironically, a bit like the plaid paintings Emerson made some years back.
That technology moves us both forward and backward is odd, but seems to be a fact of life. Almost from the time the photography was invented, artists, in an attempt to make mechanical reproduction appear painterly, have been altering their negatives every which way. And while digital photography has certainly made the task easier, the challenge of wresting meaning from fragments has never diminished. A good example is Gerhard Richter’s monumental photo-based mural, Strontium, on view in the lobby of the de Young Museum. Using deep sampling it attempts to depict the reality of atomic particles, but only succeeds in making it even more unfathomable. Olson, using a similar method, attempts to inject new meaning (and a similar sense of blurry wonderment) into digitally reconstructed photographs. She fills hers full of rich, nature-based associations that bridge the gap between high modernist practice and the fast-evolving digital future, one in which essences once described by carbon and water are now represented in binary terms: as ones and zeros.
–DAVID M. ROTH
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Mark Emerson: “The Color of Rhythm” and Penny Olson: “Flowers and Water” @ JAYJAY through June 25, 2011.
Penny Olson's photos are also on view at Chandra Cerrito Contemporary through July 23, 2011.
About the Author
David M. Roth is the editor and publishers of Squarecylinder. He was previously a contributing editor to Artweek (1995-2009) and a regular contributor to Art Ltd. A veteran journalist, and author of numerous catalog essays, his reporting on art and culture has appeared in American Craft, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, Americas and Departures.