Categorized | Painting

Thoughts on Recent Abstract Painting

Pamela Jorden: "Quarry", 2011, oil, acrylic and bleach on fabric, 33 x 33"

The anonymous sign read “Pretty Pictures Never Solved a Problem,” and it would be fair to suppose it was intended as some kind of critique of esthetics in the name of ethics.  But to that sign, I still wanted to add “they never pretended to do so, either,” so that I could make the point that a disinterest in ethics is still ethically superior to pretending to be concerned about ethics in the name of personal or interest-group self-aggrandizement.  During the past decade of political and financial tumult, we have seen a lot of art engaged in such pretenses, be it labeled “institutional critique,” “social-practices,” or the ever-popular “relational esthetics,” all of which in their own way tried to feel the world’s pain as a prelude to exaggerating their own claims of importance in the greater scheme of things. Good thing the Wall Street protesters didn’t get bogged down in any of these art world conceits, lest they, too, fall victim to being programmatically ineffectual. 

Now the stage is set for the claim that this article seeks to make, which is that there seems to be some new energy percolating in the much-maligned world of “pretty pictures,” that is, abstract painting called by that and other unfairly dismissive names.  Of course, anyone with any sustained involvement in the art world can tell you that abstract painting goes through some kind of revival every decade, meaning that you could have set your watch to the predictable arrival of the recent crop.  But this time around, things seem a little bit different.  What seems to be taking place is less a predictable revival of well-known styles (such as late 1990s “Post-Hypnotic Abstraction” or late 1960s Op Art), than a deep rethinking of the whole historical enterprise of abstract painting.  This seems particularly remarkable if you have been paying close attention to the past two decades of technologically-assisted confusion about the relationship of art and entertainment because we were all beginning to assume that the possibility for such thinking had been diluted out of existence. 
Pamela Jorden: "Untitled", 2011, oil on linen, 15"
Pamela Jorden’s recent exhibition at Romer/Young (though October 15) represents one such instance of deep rethinking.  Her work tends to be rather small, but it provides visual experiences that are very rich, complex and full of nuance. Most of her paintings are formatted as circular compositions or as almost perfect squares, offering an intimate visual experience that balances subtle fantasies of soft, fluid shapes with other more graphic forms that are circumscribed by torqued edges that are crisp and decisive.  A rich palette of shadowy hues predominate in the more fluid areas of her work, which include the addition of reflective materials that add iridescence to subtle shifts of tonality.  Jorden’s improbable variety of painterly treatments appears to be a mélange of choreographic diagrams.
Jorden’s work is also very allusive and multi-layered, and if your art-historical antennae is rusty, you might miss her many evocations of artists such as Redon, Kandinsky and Schwitters whom she casts in some very imaginative relations to the way that abstract painting evolved between the poles of Dada and Constructivism during the two decades separating the end WWI and the beginning of WW II.  All of this now seems ripe for a second look, because we have routinely regarded the highly complex art history of those two decades through Alfred Barr’s and Clement Greenberg’s ideas about the “inevitable” evolution of Modernist Art.  But instead of sharing those critics’ assumptions about the inevitable historical march to the promised land of visual purity, why not see the esthetic vocabularies hatched during those two decades as the early exploration of elaborate possibilities?  Here is where Jorden’s work seems to have hit on something.  It simultaneously reaches back to abstraction’s deep historical roots in Symbolism while also reaching forward to a world of unconventional variation on the themes of pictorial innovation for the sheer sake of exploration.

Jamie Brunson: "Prop", 2010, oil, alkyd and wax on polyester over panel, 24 x 24"
The notion of reaching back to the Symbolist roots of Modernist abstraction while simultaneously reaching forward to is also evident in Jamie Brunson’s exhibition at the Triton Museum (through November 20).  Titled Indra’s Net, the show calls attention to Brunson’s longstanding involvement with Kundalini meditation practices, a theme borne out by all of the 22 works on display. These can be divided into three groups: concentrically symmetrical compositions that like seem like schematic, non-referential versions of Tibetan Mandalas; compositions that spread vertical streaks of bright color more or less evenly across spacious and sumptuous picture surfaces; and those that seem like a hybrid of the other two.  I would call the works in this third group “cellular distribution images,” but that might be a bit overdone.  Their characteristic, irregular grids, look a bit like close-up examinations of reptile scales, except that the delicate surfaces of these works are anything but tough and lizard-like.
In fact, the almost gossamer surfaces of Brunson’s works are among their most remarkable attributes. Brunson paints on a taut polyester fabric to which she applies oil paint that is suffused with both alkyd and wax medium. This gives the surfaces of her works a radiant luster that seems a bit futuristic, but is nonetheless perfect for her color choices, revolving as they do around an exuberant chromaticism that only rarely flirts with being sugary.  More often, they reveal a subtle sense of modulation and, in fact, when your eye adjusts to the work you often see subtle shifts that coalesce into almost invisible forms that echo the more pronounced interweaving of graphic shapes.
Jamie Brunson: “Celestine”, 2010, oil and alkyd on polyester over panel, 14 x 14”
Given that Brunson’s exhibition is taking place in a Silicon Valley museum, it is not too much of a stretch to read the lattice structures of her “cellular distribution images” as schematic representations of complex, multi-nodal communications networks; but I might want to go even further to suggest that they prompt the viewer into a reconsideration of the question of where the center of a pictorial experience might reside, not to mention another question: why should art continue to assume the need for such centers?
Zheng Chongbin is another abstract painter whose work ponders a similar issue from a very different point of view that is deeply rooted in the history of Asian painting. I am still haunted by Chongbin’s exhibition at Haines Gallery last winter, partly because it succeeded in doing what so many artists have tried and failed to do: namely, create a true and deeply resonant synthesis of Asian painting with a sophisticated grasp of the modern western notion of “the picture object,” that being Michel Foucault’s term of approbation for the tradition in painting that begins with the work of Edouard Manet.
Chongbin applies different consistencies of black ink onto sheets of Xuam paper (made from sandalwood fiber),which for over a thousand years have been the preferred surfaces for calligraphic ink painting owing to the way that they reveal both the flow and crispness of an artist’s brushwork.  As was the case with the master painters of the Sung and Yuan dynasties, Chongbin’s brushwork changes tempo to create an elegant choreography of shapes that bespeak what ancient scholars referred to as “landscapes of the mind.”
Zheng Chongbin: “Untitled (Fluctuating White 2)", 2011, ink, ink wash and acrylic on Xuan paper
His flowing forms obliquely allude to distant landscapes shrouded in evanescent atmospherics, and they invite the viewer’s imagination to wander into and through them. But his surfaces also reveal a phosphorescent marbling effect created by the judicious application of white acrylic paint that brings the viewer’s gaze back to the facture of the work’s surface. This oscillation between material fact and lyrical allusiveness is the formal basis for Chongbin’s work, which plays out in the viewer’s imagination through an elegant undulation of forms that allow the eye to travel from zones defined by a rich saturation of black ink to others that give way to free-flowing, mid-tone forms. These provide a contemporary echo of the way that Sung dynasty masters portrayed the Yangtse River gorge, only in Chongbin’s work there is almost no evidence of geological fact.  Instead, we see an emphasis on the revelation of rhythmic, geomantic energies that ancient Chinese philosophers claimed were at the core of all natural beings.
Chongbin: “Note”, 2009, ink, ink wash and acrylic on Xuan paper 24 x 27”
The works of these three artists – Jorden, Brunson and Chongbin — are among a plentitude of similar efforts that I have noticed during the past year. Other artists whose work I would also include in my list of interesting new abstraction would include Corinne Wasmuht’s stand-out contribution to this past summer’s Venice Biennial, and the work of Michael Wingo, a Los Angeles painter whose recent solo exhibition at Gallery KM in Santa Monica was a welcome treat. I think that it might be interesting to note how much of the new abstraction that I am seeing harks back to the late, post-1973 works by Elmer Bischoff, Jay DeFeo and (a little bit later) Frank Lobdell, who at that time all took a decisive turn toward the abstract right when most of the painting world had started its move toward post-modernist figuration. 
About the Author
Mark Van Proyen is Chair of the Painting Department of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. He is currently working on a novel titled Theda’s Island, the story of which is set in the art world.
Pamela Jorden: “Looking Through Trees” @ Romer Young through Oct. 15, 2011
Jamie Brunson: “Indra’s Net” @ Triton Museum through Nov. 20, 2011
Zheng Chongbin photos courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery


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