by David M. Roth
What is it about the grid that makes it irresistible to artists? The most obvious answer is that it undergirds everything central to the human enterprise: maps, cities, agriculture, textiles, architecture, databases, computer code, industry, scientific knowledge and much else. It directs, prescribes, organizes, orders and assigns value. Small wonder, then, that the grid, the very emblem of modernity, has long been a vehicle for artists seeking to disrupt the status quo. Apart from the human figure, it may be our most enduring, most pliable form.
With that in mind, Todd Hosfelt recently mounted Off the Grid: Post-Formal Conceptualism, a years-in-the-making exhibition built around artists from his own stable supplemented by others from Europe, South East Asia and Africa: 38 in all. They range from internationally recognized names (Gerhard Richter, Louise Nevelson, Bruce Conner, Agnes Martin, Wallace Berman, William T. Wiley, Richard Diebenkorn, Ruth Asawa) to lesser-known but equally commanding figures, such as Jutta Haeckel, Michelle Grabner, textile artist Susie Taylor and the Italian architectural team of Giuseppe Lignano and Ada Tolla, known professionally as LOT-EK.
Don’t be put off by the exhibition’s academic-sounding title. It’s rooted in real-world matters: perception, primarily, but also domesticity, architecture, environmental sustainability, visual communication, serialism and color, with plenty of overlap between these informal subcategories. They bend, stretch and sometimes confuse notions of what the grid is and what it’s capable of conveying, evidenced by the variety of work on hand and the number of unexpected conjunctions that arise as you tour the exhibition.
Take, for example, the interaction between Susie Taylor and Michelle Grabner. One paints, the other weaves, but in this show they seem to trade roles, with Taylor’s textile “painting” affecting the look of hard-edge geometric abstraction and Grabner’s warped grids of pastel dots mimicking the look of a child’s faded blanket. In the same proximate space, Surabhi Saraf examines domestic drudgery in a video called Peel, a collection of small-scale moving images, each showing a woman performing repetitive kitchen tasks. Jess, in a crayon drawing from 1955, evokes a cozy domestic scene with intersecting, triangle-shaped grid patterns reminiscent of period tablecloths, an interpretation complicated by the appearance of Glyph-like mystical symbols.
Given the repetition of grid-based images, you’d think a show like this would quickly become redundant. It doesn’t. Even when formal structures overlap, as they often do, they behave differently. Two closely placed pieces, one by Marco Maggi, a Uruguayan living in upstate New York, and another by Luis Tomasello (1915-2014), an Argentinian, demonstrate. Both artists employ cut paper, but that is where the similarity ends. Maggi’s feats of X-acto knife virtuosity vaguely resemble alphabetic characters. In Spelling: R-e-c-t-a-n-g-l-e, Sliding Series, a parody of the classic typological display, they fold out from the surface from within a grid of 600 photographic slide mounts, portending linguistic meaning without delivering any. Tomasello’s piece, S/T 1 – Rosa, made a year before the artist’s death at age 99, consists of white paper flaps that protrude from a red background at different angles. A seemingly similar approach. But when you move from side to side, the piece turns anamorphic; it shifts depending on where you stand, refuting all attempts to impose stability.
Birgit Jensen’s grid-based works issue a different kind of perceptual challenge. Like the video artist Jim Campbell, a stablemate with whom she shares space in this show, Jensen uses shot-through silkscreen images to test the limit of how much information can be removed from a picture before it becomes illegible. SAGARMATHA, a collection of Rorschach-like shapes, coheres into a view of Mount Everest — but only at a distance. GBERT XI, an urban skyline reflected across water at night, consists of a black grid laid over a white background, pieces of which the artist occludes to create the illusion of shadow and light,
which, in turn, combine to produce the illusion of a cityscape. Viewers, I’m told, frequently identify it as Hong Kong. (I guessed Chicago.) Neither, as it happens, are correct. The scene is pure fiction. Gerhard Richter’s four Polaroids of Florence, Italy, overrun by the same kinds of paint smears seen in his large-scale squeegee paintings, go even further: They obliterate the subject and almost everything else in the frames that might be construed as a grid, blurring, as only Richter can, the line between painting and photography.
Far from inhibiting expression, the grid, often thought to be a shopworn relic, feels, in this show, like an artistic jailbreak. No artist has done more to liberate it than Jutta Haeckel, another German, who, early in her career, made paintings based on details she extracted from reproductions of Richter’s works. Today, her sources range widely, from photos of studio detritus to satellite imagery, all of which she replicates on jute by prying apart the fibers, stuffing the gaps with pigment and applying pinpoints of neon-hued paint to the front surface. Though her grids may be damaged, they remain strong enough to support the weight of the paint yet fragile enough to lend credence to an ephemeral image like the one on view, of gaseous clouds titled Cosmic Background Radiation 1.
Other artists use the grid almost invisibly. In Converging Echoes, Stephan Kurten’s painting of decorative patterns, it’s so faint you have to strain to see it. Alexandre Kyungu Mwilambwe, a Congolese artist, makes mincemeat of it — and, a searing environmental statement. His sculpture, The Scar of the Earth II, an inner tube sliced into irregular geometric shapes, supports human figures in a contorted mass of black rubber with a valve stem sticking out the top. It hangs on a wall, limp. These, however, are exceptions. Elsewhere, the grid performs its traditional role as a conveyor of typological information and a compositional organizing tool. Strong examples of the former include Wallace Berman’s untitled Verifax collage of cryptic, signifying photos; William T. Wiley’s image and text-jammed political treatise, Field of Dreams with Cluster Bombs (2006); and LOT-EK’s URBANSCAN BLOCKS, a grid of 24 flipbooks filled with photos of urban detritus, the material basis of the duo’s environmentally friendly architectural practice, soon to be subject of an upcoming exhibition.
The remainder of the show, conceptually speaking, is given over to compositional and color strategies that might be classified as Op. Consider the mass of colored dots that comprise Emil Lukas’ jiggling #2072. I took the huge bulge at the center to be an optical trick. It is, but not the sort I imagined. The protrusion is actually a mound of plaster — a play on my conditioned response to such stimuli. The zingiest painting in the show, inspired by a fictional account of an ancient Japanese costume, comes from Andrea Higgins. She paints tiny rectangles in alternating shades of olive-green and inserts them into (and in between) skinny vertical bands, creating a “topography” of subtly shifting color gradients. They lead the eye in a zig-zagging pirouette across the surface, evoking a padded robe.
I ended my tour of the show on a far subtler note: a tiny (9 x 9-inch) pair of Agnes Martin drawings from 1995 consisting of horizontal lines drawn in pencil across a pale, shadowy watercolor wash. Austere? Yes, but in the best possible way. A way that made me think of nothing at all except the sensation of cloudy nothingness, which Martin saw as art’s highest realm. It’s but one measure of this show’s depth and breadth. Another more lasting measure, visible only once I left the exhibition, was seeing grids everywhere I looked.
# # #
“Off the Grid: Post-Formal Conceptualism” @ Hosfelt Gallery through May 20, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.