by David M. Roth
I rarely quibble with exhibition titles, but in this case a slight shift in emphasis really does facilitate understanding. My recommendation: Bypass the first five letters of the first word (Quintessence) and instead concentrate on the second syllable: essence. Contemplate that, and you’ll more easily grasp what this show, subtitled, 6 Perspectives on Abstraction, is all about. It doesn’t concern the apex of any particular artist’s career or the epitome of any particular approach to abstraction. Rather, it is about the ways artists explore essences, material and conceptual.
Leslie Shows creates mimetic relationships between materials and content. David Simpson makes paintings that alter light. Kota Ezawa strips photos of descriptive detail to reveal salient characteristics, while Patsy Krebs (below) examines the infinite number of permutations that can be wrung from geometry. Yunhee Min mines the emotive potential of color, and Argentinian Julian Prebisch paints spooky, quasi-surrealist scenes populated by Art Deco and Bauhaus-like objects. Granted, this is a slender premise on which to hang a show, but it mostly succeeds – not by setting up a dialog between the works, but displaying pieces that encourage viewers to
grapple with their own perceptions. In so doing, the exhibition covers a lot of historical territory: from works whose origins trace to the beginning of non-objective painting (Krebs) to the mid-20th century, when West Coast artists like Simpson began experimenting with industrial materials, to others (Ezawa and Shows) whose practices are made possible, in part, by digital imaging.
Of the six artists whose work is on view, Shows is the clear star. Since wowing audiences with large-scale paper collages at SFMOMA’s 2006 SECA exhibition, she has continued to forge new paths, always with an eye on the natural environment, an outgrowth of a youth spent in Alaska watching mining wreck the environment. Her output, which straddles collage, assemblage and installation, continues to reflect that experience in ways that make it difficult to know whether you’re seeing aerial views of landscapes, samples of geologic strata writ large or some perspective-bending combination in which the ancient past, the industrial present and a “post-nature” future collide. This type of thinking she told Art in America “can be almost impossibly layered, ephemeral and complex, like transparent mental overlays making ‘chords’ of thought.” Those “mental impressions,” she continued, “can seem impossible to articulate, but an object that is analogous can be made, pinning the impressions down in the physical world. It can be very concrete and textural, while also having an elusive, illusory quality.”
The last Shows exhibit I saw at Haines in 2011 evinced those exact qualities. It featured gleaming expanses of polished metal to which the artist applied paint, sand, plastic, ink, plexiglas, crushed glass, mica and mylar – all for the purpose of dimensionally representing computer-scanned chunks of pyrite (aka “fools gold”). The finished works looked like excavated geological deposits buffed to a high sheen. The three works in this show, though smaller, less muscular and less glitzy, employ a similar approach to material handling. Marque, for example, consists, in part, of a scan of a geode, a crystal-encrusted rock cavity, that the artist printed onto a piece of sand-coated paper; the rough, faintly glittery substrate throws the printed image wildly out of focus; while its suspension, from an aluminum panel, with a slight gap between the paper and the support, conjures both a painted animal hide and a cave painting, the latter with a shape near the bottom that resembles a deer head. A swatch of dark paint at the upper the left side also caught my eye. It is applied to the surface with such intentional haphazardness I couldn’t help but see it as a barb thrown at Abstract Expressionism and also a deep bow to Robert Rauschenberg whose “combines” famously juxtaposed dissimilar elements. Viewed at a distance, Marque, along with two other works — one featuring a jewel-like expanse of abraded metal, the other, an hourglass shape partially obscured by plexiglas – oscillate in look and feel between primordial and earthly sublime. In the aggregate, these acretions of material evidence implicate humanity in the planet’s destruction, but they never point an accusing finger. Click here to read prior reviews of Leslie Shows.)
Simpson, 90, the best-known artist in the group, has long been regarded as a color field painter. However, the seven works in this show lean more toward Light and Space. All are ostensibly monochromatic, but in Simpson’s hands color takes on fugitive qualities due to his use of metal-laced interference pigments that reflect and refract light. A grouping of five 12 x 12-inch canvases dating from the mid-1990s to 2000 illustrates. Each is painted a single color (grey/brown, bronze, purple, silver and oxblood); however those colors appear to shift as you move from side to side. The experience mirrors (at a vastly faster pace) changes in color "temperature" that occur when the sun moves across the horizon. Close inspection also reveals a constellation of sub-surface inflections laid down in multiple layers, further complicating what appears at first glance to be a straightforward visual proposition.
LA painter Yunhee Min picks up where the Washington Color School painters of the 1950s and 1960s left off. She pictures Southern California light in quavering, overlapping vertical bands rendered in colors of a sort not often found in nature; they reflect the artifice of LA itself. Yet the paintings feel more organic than synthetic owing to how the artist applies paint to canvas. This
is especially true of Movements (Serpentine 6), a diptych in which the pigment, laid down in thin washes with a squeegee, has the texture of sea foam. Some years back, Peter Frank coined a term for this kind of work. He called it “flow painting,” by which he meant artists who employ thinned-down pigment and allow it to behave naturally, while at the same time gently coaxing it toward to their own ends. Min’s work, which nods to Morris Louis, appears to fall squarely into that category, aligning closely with a lot of like-minded contemporary painters — Andy Moses and Suzan Woodruff are two that spring immediately to mind.
Kota Ezawa appropriates photographs sourced from art history and pop culture and flattens them into cartoon-like silhouettes. But rather than drain those images of whatever power they possess, Ezawa’s digital drawings enhance the originals by removing information. That seemingly counterintuitive strategy leads viewers into a subliminal quest for what’s missing and for answers to questions about whether (and to what extent) the missing information really matters. A projected animation, a remake of Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock painting on
glass, forms the centerpiece of this part of the exhibition. It shows the artist dripping paint in slow motion: an attempt, I assume, to break down Pollock's complex gestural language into its essential components. Also on view are three drawings presented as backlit transparencies in light boxes. The strongest, Jimi Hendrix meets Josef Albers, shows the guitarist’s head and face enclosed in three interlocking frames. Granted, this is a pictorial cliché, but it makes literal Hendrix’s famous lyric (“…I’m a million miles away, and at the same time I’m right here in your picture frame”), while at the same time accentuating his gaze in a way that’s slightly uncanny.
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“Quintessence: 6 Perspectives on Abstraction” @ Haines Gallery through September 1, 2018.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.