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Tony DeLap @ Rena Bransten Projects

L to R: Ibis and Reo, 2014, a/c on linen, both 31 x 30 3/4"
 
If you fail at first glance to grasp the full impact Tony DeLap’s art, the problem isn’t with your eyes.  It’s with the human brain’s instinct to deny what the eyes take in.  This is not a perceptual flaw.  It’s how we react to things we think we know.  Magicians have long exploited this gap, and so does DeLap, a semi-professional magician and one-time architectural designer whose paintings and sculptures have, for more than 50 years, famously employed visual sleights of hand.  Eighty-eight years of age and going strong, he’s long been an icon within the overlapping realms of West Coast Minimalism and the Light and Space movement.  
 
Bluey-bluey, 1992, wood and acrylic on canvas

The most obvious "deception" in DeLap’s work is its outward appearance.  The flat, affect-free paint handling and hard-edged geometric forms most vividly recall Mondrian and Constructivism, art that kept viewers at a cool distance. DeLap’s, by contrast, is an art of profound sensory and psychological engagement. A key innovation, which he arrived at in the early 1960s, was painting geometric forms onto irregularly shaped canvases with backward curving (hyperbolic) edges.  The resulting objects simultaneously convey the dimensionality of sculpture and the illusionism of painting. While much has been made of those edges, a more compelling aspect is the precision with which DeLap juxtaposes painted shapes on the surfaces.  He does it graphically, using bold, interpenetrating forms, which create the appearance of volume as opposed to painterly illusionism, which tries to convince us that something exists behind the surface.  

Like his cohorts (Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Larry Bell Robert Irwin, John McLaughlin, John McCracken) DeLap reduces his art to rudiments: planes, edges and colors.  But wanting a richer, more personal experience, he insists on handcrafting each element, a choice that compounds the tension between the highly finished look of Minimalism and the deadpan facts of, say, bare wood.  The latter figures prominently in the twisted, awning-like overhang of Handy Bandy, a canvas whose bulbous shape and luminous black tonality recall the oil stick drawings of Richard Serra, and in the large painting-cum-sculpture called Bluey-bluey; it hangs in the bay window of the gallery, looking (from the front) like a fusion of two baseball pennants, until its curves force you to mediate between its flatness and its subtle dimensionality. 
 
Ultimately it’s the forms DeLap conjoins on those surfaces that hold greater sway.  Their arrangement is the product of intense meditation on visual relationships, worked out in advance through studies in which the artist moves paper cutouts around until a particular configuration strikes him as being correct.  The results are potent force fields: vectors of compressed, focused energy that are disrupted by irregularities (notches, holes,

 

 

Simply Complex, 2014, acrylic on linen, 58 x 60 x 1 1/4"

and other seeming discrepancies) that come to assume monumental importance because of how they re-route expectations about how shapes and volumes should behave.  In this show, which includes intimate drawings, collages, medium-sized paintings and large sculptures (made between 1992 and 2014), there are many such disruptions. One of the strongest examples, located on the second floor of the gallery, is Ibis: a square within a square whose upper left edge bisects a sloping silhouette, fracturing the picture into a half dozen discrete forms that confuse positive and negative space.  I could go on about how these shapes interact, but words tend to obscure more than they illuminate when it comes to telegraphing the impact of works like these.  You have to see them.  

So in closing I’ll leave you with an enticement.  I borrow it from Roland Barthes who, in Camera Lucida, maintained that great works of art always contain a punctum, a visual event that metaphorically pierces the viewer.  This exhibition contains many, and like those that enable a good card trick, they’re all in plain view.  
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Tony DeLap @ Rena Bransten Projects through March 21, 2015.  

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