AN EXAMINATION OF ABSTRACT ART
A cross-section of works by New York artists explore evocative concepts of color, texture, form and process
We live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where stuff arrives according to cycles of wind, wave and Matson. Thanks to co-curators Liam Davis (University of Hawaii Master of Fine Arts alumnus) and Debra Drexler (UH professor of painting and drawing), we’ve got something more productive than an invasive species or a commercial franchise on hand.
“New New York” is an exhibition of contemporary abstract painting imported fresh from the Big Apple. For those artists and art historians who keep track of the players in this game, the 30-artist show includes works by Peggy Cyphers, Lisa Corinne Davis, Shirley Kaneda, Julie Mehretu, Odili Donald Odita, Barbara Takenaga and Terry Winters.
But even without knowing any of these names, there is a lot to see in this set of intense and diverse works. However, don’t expect to immediately recognize their content. Being abstract, they lack the representative anchors: faces, landscapes, objects or scenes.
But that doesn’t mean that a line, shape, pattern or texture wasn’t applied to the surface with anything less than 100 percent intention. One can be sure what is mounted on the wall is the best example of a whole series of experimental struggles with materials, concepts, color, processes and ideas.
If one insists on playing the game that looks for religious figures in the noisy patterns of everyday life, Amanda Church’s “Inversion” evokes the female figure; Robert Otto Epstein’s “8Bitterized,” Paul Corio’s “Too Many Detectives” and Franklin Evans’ “futuredpast” all evoke the pixels and stacked window environments of the digital world. Enrico Gomez’s “Cardinal No” is an optical illusion that refuses to resolve into legible text, and many of these painters work with motifs of swirling rainbow mosaics atop complex fields of color.
There is something both playful and menacing in Lisa Corinne Davis’ “Concrete Delusion,” which demonstrates a tension between a faltering monochrome grid and various scales of disruption in both color and form. It’s almost as if natural forces and lines of spontaneous connection are emerging under geologic pressures, the horizontal fault line of bold quilted quadrilaterals pushing an urban fabric aside to let rainbows and black ink leak to the surface.
BUT PERHAPS I have already overdetermined what viewers might experience on their own terms, for abstract painting demands that one ride out an immediate aesthetic reaction (the simplified “like-don’t like” that is trained into us), and even wait out the mind’s tendency to seek and identify patterns.
The artists’ incredibly varied uses of color, texture, brushwork, form, depth, transparency and pattern are all meant to “strike” the eye and rouse reactions that are deeply programmed through ancestral perception. Abstract painting expects the viewer to see first, feel next and think last.
How else might one approach a work like Julie Torres’ “Drop,” a vertically mounted pool of bright yellow acrylic paint that uses a paper bag as a frame. Here she has reduced painting to its barest essences: a carefully chosen color, a plan for its interaction with light, a play on the notion of framing and an exaggeration of what normally would be thought of as a mere dab on the palette.
“Drop” connects to John Zinsser’s “Confessions of St. Augustine,” a bold cross-hatching of cadmium red applied in thick brush strokes that leave every interaction of bristle, viscosity and overlap as articulated as a sculpture. Though the title refers to one man’s reflection on a life of sin, and signs of blood and prison are certainly there for interpretation, there are other ways into the work. One viewer I met saw it as an expression of excess — “Paint is expensive!” — and a symbol of capitalism.
Though she knew nothing of the title, was she far from the mark?
This brings us to the myth that there is a “right” or “wrong”
‘NEW NEW YORK: ABSTRACT PAINTING IN THE 21ST CENTURY’
>> Through Dec. 4; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays >> University of Hawaii Art Gallery, Art Building at UH-Manoa >> 956-6888 or visit hawaii.
edu/art >> Closed: Thanksgiving holi
day, Nov. 26, and 27 way to look at an abstract painting. Though formal expertise in art lies on a spectrum dictated by economics, academia and ego, the artists and curators would expect viewers to first and foremost trust what they see. Some may complain about the “lack of information” on the walls, but I would ask them if, when contemplating nature, they expect an explanation to go with it.
For this show it is best to go with one’s gut and enjoy the ride, and for those who want to delve more, I recommend the exhibition’s excellent catalog (available in the gallery), which contains essays that go deeper into context than this brief survey can provide.
“Animal Spirits,” above, is Peggy Cyphers’ silkscreen on canvas. At left is Lisa Corinne Davis’ oil on panel, “Concrete Delusion.”
Julie Torres’ “Drop” uses a paper bag as a frame for yellow acr ylic paint.