A little over a year ago, JAYJAY began showcasing its archives in an emailed newsletter called The Back Room Weekly. Each installment talks about an individual work and what makes it worthy. Now, the gallery has built a show around that idea, comprised of works from its stable of artists. Their styles roam from geometric abstraction and Minimalism, to Post-Minimalism and P&D, and to several currents of painting that fit comfortably under the postmodernist banner.
While diversity of this sort can often derail a group show, this exhibition offers some surprising conjunctions. One that jumps out is between the San Antonio-based photographer Stuart Allen and the Oakland-based photographer Penny Olson. Allen began his career executing “light paintings” using Central Valley landscapes as the backdrops. Olson started as a textile artist before switching, decades ago, to photomechanical methods. Today, both artists take colors found in nature and turn them into works aimed at revealing essences. Allen’s sole offering – printed pixel samplings of organic matter from Yosemite topped by a sheet of optically treated glass – yields shimming moiré patterns whose colors shift Op-ishly when you move from side to side. Olson’s extracts of garden snapshots, electronically “woven” into barely perceptible lines, form soft-edged geometric patterns that echo plant sources as well as textile patterns. It’s a unique take on Minimalism and geometric abstraction. The idea that binds the two artists is age-old but worth repeating: viewpoint colors perception — literally.
Essences also come to mind when you look at the output of sculptor Robert Ortbal. Using wire, styrofoam, toothpicks, rubber balls, paper, flocking and other “humble” materials, he visualizes things we can’t grasp with our senses: the “shape” of smells, in one notable instance. Here, in a small bronze pedestal piece, Prelude to Indra’s Net, we see a delicate, shot-through form that looks as if it was dredged from the sea; its title and perforated appearance reference the Buddhist concept of interpenetration — the “everything is everything” idea Gil Scott-Heron once sang of in the very different context of pre-Hip-Hop R&B.
Similar concerns show up in the work of Ian Harvey and Joan Moment, two process painters who find their compositions on the fly. (Disclosure: Moment is my partner.) During the past couple decades both have expanded the possibilities of paint by pushing it to extremes. Three Harvey canvases from the early ‘90s show him as an unfettered paint slinger, piling up pigment in hot colors that sometimes spin out of control. Two of them do exactly that. But another, #58 Stump, is a masterpiece. It’s an example of plasticity mimicking geological events in a delicate balance between intention and chance. Moment, a pioneer in the realm of what has been called “flow painting” operates in a looser fashion.
In Alchemical Interactions, an 8 x 6-foot canvas, she manipulates “paint water” across the surface to achieve effects that recall tide pools, rivulets, crusty rock formations and gaseous nebulae. Coalesced, these elements make you feel as if you’re viewing the Earth from two vantage points simultaneously: from the ground and from the sky. It embodies the concept of interrelatedness as well as any painting you’re likely to find in contemporary art.
Koo Kyung Sook, Harvey’s wife and collaborator, makes her own process-oriented works by subverting old-school photographic techniques. A significant portion of her career involved using photo chemicals the way Yves Klein used paint in his “anthopometries”: she rolled her body in them. She’s since taken precautions to protect her health, but hasn’t given up the technique. Here, in, Markings 11-3 1/3, a 20-part series mounted on aluminum, she places a developer-coated plastic bag on her head and uses it as a drawing tool. There is no evidence of bodily imprinting; rather, the piece looks like a Sumi ink drawing made by an abstract expressionist with a taste for a splashy Rococo forms, evidenced by the filigreed patterns lodged inside the picture’s free-flowing “gestures”.
Julia Couzens, following the lead of post-minimalist sculptors like Eva Hesse and Jessica Stockholder, has fashioned a unique and compelling oeuvre out of crushed wire cages tightly wrapped in rope, yarn, thread and other textile materials. They telegraph the tension, pent-up desire and obsession the artist invests in object making. Each of her works in this sphere feels like the act of conscious rebellion that is it, of actively going against well-worn paths and aesthetic clichés. Ungainly and lopsided though these objects are, they seem, in spite of themselves, to evince a roughshod elegance. The one on view here, aptly titled Rootball, dangles from the ceiling, a slow-spinning testament to energies unleashed and then bound up again.
Back in 2007, I described David Wetzl’s painting as “a chaotic cocktail of representation and abstraction rendered in a slew of art historical styles that show reason, faith, genetic memory and biological imperatives colliding in a sea of pop cultural and technological effluvia.” The description still applies, only now the artist creates many of the same effects digitally, but with no let-up in the amount of information he crams into a picture.
Thus, when Wetzl has a clear target, so do we. The Birth of Taico Co., for example, takes the word “corporation” as it subject. The artist chops it into syllables, forcing viewers to consider the aural and political possibilities that arise from the resulting anagrams (“corp or ate”, “po rate” “rate corp po”, “po rate”). Taico, I should point out, is also the name of a fictional corporation the artist invented to promote his ideas – a fact you wouldn’t know unless told. Luckily, recent history in the form of the Occupy movement has assigned new meaning to the text.
Mark Emerson’s paintings are also dizzyingly complex, perhaps even more so than Wetzl’s, but in a different way: they are about the visual permutations that can be squeezed from color and geometric shape. Though the artist sometimes exhausts viewers who find his fragmented mash-ups of pattern and clashing colors a bit much, he continues to push forward with fresh inventions that inject fresh life into hard-edge Geometric Abstraction – a movement that refuses to play dead. The three pictures here are from 2004-05.
Should galleries mine their archives more frequently? If the works are as well chosen as these, why not? Good art isn’t diminished by time; it’s strengthened.
“The Back Room” @ JAYJAY through April 21, 2012. The show also includes Richard Martinez, Ellen Van Fleet, Kim Squaglia, Roger Berry, Kerry Van Der Meer as well as other gallery artists in a nearby “annex”.
–DAVID M. ROTH