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Marco Casentini @ Brian Gross

The Big Green, 2013, acrylic, Plexiglas on canvas, 59 x 59"

Marco Casentini’s bright, hard-edged, geometric abstractions plunge us into those parts of 20th century art history in which geometry was used to purge painting of real-world references. Those parts — Constructivism, Concrete Art, Minimalism and Neo Geo — encompass a large group of painters: from Piet Mondrian and Kazmir Malevich to Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, and from Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel to Peter Halley, Casentini’s closest contemporary.  

Casentini, whose work has been shown widely in Italy, Germany and Los Angeles, would appear to fit neatly into this neo-modernist continuum were it not for certain aspects of his approach that set him apart.  Those aspects, on view in his sixth show at Brian Gross, appear in five paintings that occupy the main gallery, an installation of 15 hemispherical Plexiglas sculptures that resemble patterned beach balls, and a quartet of wall-mounted wood boxes that receive similar wrap-around treatment.  While the sculptural works flamboyantly engage issues of flatness vs. dimensionality, it’s the 2-D works that captured and held my attention.  
Painted squares of Plexiglas provide the first and most important clue as to how Casentini differs from those who’ve influenced him.  Affixed to canvases and casting thin shadows, they reflect and refract light, giving the illusion of deep space in some places and negating it in others — qualities that align Casentini positively with the SoCal-based Light and Space movement whose artists pioneered the use of synthetic materials for exactly that purpose.  Another difference: Rather than eradicate references, as Minimalists and Neo Geo painters did

All the Small Things, 2013, acrylic, Plexiglas on canvas 59 x 59"

and still do, Casentini’s work summons palpable associations.  His shapes, which appear nested inside each other, unfold rhythmically, their “meter” controlled by modulations of size and color, in mash-ups of close-value hues and clashing dissonant shades.  The artist’s stated goal is to communicate his experience of urban architecture and light, which he records in paintings made at various locales in the U.S. and Europe.  

While Casentini’s level of abstraction masks the identity of those cities, his paintings are, nevertheless, highly specific, as different from each other as San Francisco is from LA. Significantly, his breakthrough came in the early 1990s, when the 53-year-old Milanese artist first visited LA where he continues to work for several months each year. Like other European artists he became transfixed by West Coast light. Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, in particular, moved him, as did, I imagine, the collapsed aerial perspectives Diebenkorn used in his landscapes of the early 1950s.  However, his overlapping of forms is clearly indebted to Hofmann.  
Look Around, a painting dominated by shades of light blue and pure white, conjures a city seen from the sky, one whose density decreases as you move diagonally across the canvas, from left to right.  It’s not a coastal scene, but its subject, apart from architecture, is coastal light.  The Big Green takes this impulse further, into pale and supersaturated Caribbean tones relieved sporadically by small squares of dark blue.  You may

The Rainbow in Your Room, 2013, a/c, Plexi on canvas 37  x 33"

reach for your sunglasses.  At the opposite end of the chromatic spectrum All the Small Things strikes a darker chord and an even stronger rhythmic tempo, set in motion by interlocking shapes that, if viewed in a Cageian, mode could serve as a musical score. The Rainbow in Your Room calls up red rock formations and Mexican villages, signaled by shades of deep orange. 

Casentini’s paintings may at first give off the aura of impenetrability, but they quickly open up.  Paths emerge between shapes.  Architectural forms gently present themselves.  Color swatches recede and push forward in rhythms that percolate at different tempos. The only evidence of the artist’s hand resides in rough swatches of canvas where gesso has been applied and left un-sanded.  Nevertheless, the unique sensations imparted by each painting dispel notions that Casentini’s practice is in any way formulaic.  Rather, these works represent an extreme distillation of visual stimuli – a canny blend of flatness and spatiality that flips us back and forth between historical references and the present, awakening in the mind an acute realization of how one’s position in relation to the sun affects perception: a physical contingency from which everything else follows. 
“Up and Down”: Marco Casentini @ Brian Gross Fine Art through April 26, 2014.

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