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dan walsh:
players on a stage

by John Zinsser  



   For his second show at Paula Cooper, Dan Walsh, a young abstract painter from Brooklyn, has adventurously expanded his language of stripped-down geometric form and opened up his work to new readings.

Previously, Walsh's method was marked by its seeming simplicity. His paintings consisted solely of free-hand, rectilinear line drawings in black or yellow on solid white backgrounds. Executed in thin acrylic paint, they had the graphic directness of drawings on paper. But closer inspection revealed a more studied and time-consuming process, in which the lines were worked and re-worked into their final arrangements. Walsh neatly weighed the implicit authority of his often-symmetrical geometric motifs against the more gentle hand-wrought hesitancy inherent to his mark-making technique. With this quirky esthetic, he put a decidedly personal spin on the established canon of Minimalist abstraction.

Last spring, at Petra Bungert's small, one-room Soho gallery, Walsh for the first time extrapolated his severe draftsmanship into a real space, applying black tape directly to the pristine plaster walls to make an architectural matrix that also served as a three-dimensional drawing.

The literal-mindedness of that project carries over into Walsh's current show, where his imagery is represented in a variety of media, providing surprising shifts of palette, scale and meaning. First, viewers approaching the gallery on 21st Street see a large-scale illuminated billboard hanging from the railroad trestle spanning the street. Here, Walsh has installed a large poster enlarged from a small maquette, showing a thin-ruled rectangle outlined coldly against a sickly light green background. It reads like an abstract road sign, perhaps a warning of sorts, calling on a viewer's pre-associational understanding of geometry as an international language of regimental authority.

Entering the main gallery space, a suite of medium-large paintings are hung low to the floor, as if in willful opposition to the soaring wood-beamed ceiling above. The paintings form a common viewing plane, and share imagery that undergoes formal transformation from work to work. True to his established vocabulary, Walsh sticks to graphic representations of grid motifs on white grounds, but he has expanded his use of color and painterly transparency, affording himself freedoms previously denied.

In Constant, 1998, a horizontal-format canvas, Walsh frames the painting architecturally, with black lines spanning the top and bottom of the work. In the charged, open white space in the middle, a row of small linked circles runs from side to side, as if suspended with the tautness of a rope-bridge. Here, as throughout, Walsh's signature hard lines seem to give and sag, as if affected by gravity. This way, they suggest that they are real objects operating in real space.

In another horizontal work, Academic, 1998, Walsh tightly groups a number of his brightly colored rectilinear shapes above and below a horizon-like black line of division. He seems to be playing up the individual personalities of his forms, gathering them together as if they're social entities. He has described this collective configuration as a kind of "storage" unit for his painting motifs, as if they are sitting on a common "shelf." This way, a set of idiosyncratic miniatures perform as players within the stage of a larger painting.

Much of Walsh's thinking with regard to this kind of scale-shifting transposition has arisen out of an artist-book project he developed this past year in collaboration with JRP Editions, Geneva. Fifteen of these books are on display in a vitrine in the gallery's small front room. They were produced on a letter press and consist of folios that open into two-page spreads of thin horizontal rules. Walsh has painted thumbnail-sized versions of his paintings into various positions within the line matrixes using white acrylic paint and ink "brush markers." Each book is different, the sizes and positions of the small works shifting in their placements. These individualized folios serve as architectural models, providing different metaphors depending on the positioning and scale of the works contained. This is Walsh displaying a strong self-curatorial impulse. The miniature paintings are exaggeratedly pictographic and cartoonish, playing up their antic personality. Seeing the images presented within these seemingly narrative vignettes changes the way a viewer perceives the show as a whole, the paintings becoming large demonstrative chartings of a private social or political system.

Walsh is not the only young abstract painter to be calling into play such issues of context- and scale-shift as a means to form a larger, transformative vocabulary. Recent New York shows by Diti Almog and Rebecca Quaytman have employed similar strategies.

Though Walsh's work is full of art historical allusions, it remains fresh in its look. His square works clearly reference Peter Halley's "cells," including the inherent sociopolitical content such geometry suggests. But Walsh's work has none of the domineering authoritarianism that marks Halley's. For Walsh, the reading of the iconography is more open-ended, a caricature of regimented civilization. Likewise, in Walsh's work, one sees echoes of other pictographic painters, from A.R. Penck to Keith Haring to Jonathan Lasker, sharing with them a sense of animation and child-like play.

Walsh himself sees this show as a departure. Previously, he says he had felt that his work was necessarily about "defending a position." Now, he is allowing himself autonomy, working to break down the hegemonic tradition of geometric abstraction. And it is this sense of open-endedness, expansiveness and personal exploration that gives this show its vitality.

Dan Walsh, Mar. 28-Apr. 25, 1998, at Paula Cooper Gallery, 534 West 21st Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

JOHN ZINSSER is a New York painter and writer.