"Presentational Painting III," Feb. 16-Apr. 15, 2006, at the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery, 450 West 41st Street, New York, N.Y. 10036
When is an abstract painting not an abstract painting? When it’s a "presentational" painting, of course.
Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Hunter College Gabriele Evertz has organized a cerebral and visual feast of a show for the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery. "Presentational Painting III" opened in late February in this almost embarrassingly capacious facility, which comprises a dozen or so interconnecting spaces and affords the opportunity to get an eyeful of recent work by each of the 16 painters included. Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, this wonderful space -- in the building that, until 1987, housed Voorhees Technical College -- deserves a marker on the mental map of any New York gallery-goer.
Evertz, herself a painter, was included in the original formulation of "Presentational Painting," organized by Hunter's Sanford Wurmfeld and seen here in 1993. (The second incarnation, in 1997, was mounted at Hunter's smaller space, the Leubsdorf Gallery at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue.) The present show demonstrates again that pure form and color can have considerable allure for all but the most anti-abstractionist viewers.
But first, about that title. "Presentational" is designed to express the notion of "non-representational" in a more affirmative way, by eliminating the negative. Clearly, the work in the show is indebted to various strands of 20th-century avant-garde experimentation, including Constructivism, Suprematism, Minimalism and Op, with an emphasis on the function of color.
But don't call it "abstract." According to the curators, that term applies to imagery, however unrecognizable, that is derived from the visual experience of the wider world. The works at Hunter purport to be wholly invented, "concerned with the account of meaning that is inherent in the painting itself," as Evertz writes in the catalogue. Sound austere? But the artists' devotion to their materials is in itself expressive, and most are by no means averse to infusing the viewing experience with a bit of mystery. Evertz organized "Seeing Red," mounted in the two Hunter spaces in 2003, in which a theoretical approach to chromatic verities was balanced by a profound awareness of the poetic and subconscious impact of that bloody, Commie, wine-dark color. The delights of the present show similarly rest on theory held at bay by plastic, pictorial invention.
Transparency is where it's at for Steven Salzman. His vertically striped canvasses were included in the 1993 show, and he is represented here by six large acrylic-on-canvas paintings. In five of them, the whispering, metallic hues seem barely present, in the misty dazzle of a many-pointed starburst. Applied to a white ground, the pearlescent colors shift through the spectrum as the viewer changes angles, while the overlapping paint films collect in the middle to a hazy, collective gray. In Angular Momentum Made Me, a steely violet creeps down the starburst's upper reaches as the viewer approaches. But in This Painting Tried to Kill Me, the additive property is reversed; shimmering bands stretch across a grape-juice-purple ground, resembling a milky, metallic explosion with a glowing, gauzy core. Eight feet tall, the painting dominates the otherwise chromatically restrained assembly like an eccentric, hyperbolic basketball coach.
Some of the nicest moments in Steve Karlik's oil-on-panel paintings suggest overlapping transparent planes, straight out of Josef Albers -- the central section of Fifty Fifty, for instance, where a yellow band protrudes in front of a blue field. With surfaces as smooth as baked enamel, these are exercises in pure color, except in works like The Solvency Of, where the impure, underlying wood grain is allowed to interfere.
Beginning with a black square, the Brooklyn-based artist Don Voisine coaxes out an array of variations in which the painting surface is crucial. A trio of untitled works, made in 1999 and 2000, feature a core of stacked, shifting black forms, augmented by coffered, whitish strips and framed by a margin in a grayed upper register: an earthy tint or knocked-back secondary hue. Fall is sneakily glorious; an untitled, 12-inch-diameter tondo from 2002, its yawning black interior in exquisite balance with the bluish border, has an authority loomingly out of proportion with its size. An exhibition of new work by the painter opens on Apr. 14 at Metaphor Contemporary Art on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
Technically qualifying as sculpture, the work of Lynne Harlow nevertheless focuses on pictorial issues like color and drawing. Lithe includes a burly yellow patch, four by nine feet, painted directly on the wall; three feet away, as if facing it, is a same-sized length of aluminum screen, tethered to the lighting track on the ceiling. Unexplained Fires is even more sculptural, with two squares of lemony Plexiglas leaning against facing walls and shedding light to their hotly glowing edges. Literally dazzling, four large oils by British artist Charlotte Nicholson from her "Snow Blind" series are murderous on the retinas. The fine, undulating tracery, in bright yellow on stark white, makes a masochist of any viewer who looks too long, or too closely.
The suggestion of topography emerges from SNS, a grid of 12 weird little paintings in acrylic, alkyd and oil on polyester by Martijn Schuppers. They resemble cloudbanks, or the ripples of sand at the bottom of a shallow bay. (Evertz confirmed my hunch about how the ripples are formed: The title refers to James Bond's martini, "shaken, not stirred.") In their reticence they are more intriguing than his larger, coloristically showy rainbow-roll paintings, though these pocked and runny canvases also beg the question of how the paint was applied
But application is forthright in the work of Matthew Deleget, whose ongoing "Case Study" series, started in 2003, consists of four-by-four-foot paintings with a rolled-on ground color, and four smoothly brushed, twelve-by-twelve-inch squares in a pungently contrasting color, like brick red on aqua, or hot orange on a profoundly deep blue. They are deployed across the surface like tiles in a board game, in some cases giving rise to additional squares as negative shapes.
Seriality is brought to the fore in the work of Hartmut Böhm, who is represented here by Color Climate (40 Parts), a horizontal line-up of colored-pencil drawings on 8½ x 11 in. sheets of paper. Each drawing consists of 120 fairly evenly spaced vertical lines on Italian watercolor stock in a particular, quaintly-named hue – "Sanguine," "Bistre," "Nougat" -- arranged according to the pencils' position in the box they came in. Ceding crucial decision-making to the manufacturer, the artist removes his ego from the process. (On the other hand, a wall had to be removed to hang the result!)
The stripe is a mainstay of modernist pictorial strategies, and it gets a rethink in Paul Corio's huddling, red-and-green disks, which proliferate like bubbles. The stripes alternately merge with and detach from a similarly striped ground in Carbona Not Glue. In Samurai Gold Seekers and Cobweb Castle, the palette turns to orange and ochre, with a contrasting, watery-looking subsection. The thin, slanted stripes of silver, black, and fluorescent primaries and secondaries in Gilbert Hsiao's paintings are arranged in syncopated intervals, alignments that yield subtle movements, like the darker vertical banding in Scape, where magentas, purple and black coincide, and the concentration of red and orange that courses through the midsection of Reconciliation. The tondo format gets a workout in Topspin, wherein Hsiao, the most Op-oriented painter in the show, plays with the suggestion of dematerialization that proceeds, paradoxically, from the certainly with which the painting's parameters are established.
With their play of flat, smooth color swatches against a scraped, two-tone smudge, the paintings of Changha Hwang evoke architecture in the process of being vaporized. In the smallish Nature, the graphical fragmentation is held in check by a fairly limited palette; in the mural-sized Gray, Black, White, the palette is hotter (its title notwithstanding) and more arbitrary; bars of clanging secondary hues race in and out of a field studded with cobalt blue and ominous patches of magenta and black.
The chromatic temperature of the show is brought down a few degrees by Daniel Crews’ large, brushy grids in neighboring hues and values, by Mike Stack's lolling fields of horizontal, violet slabs, and by the tidy, chalky, boxy acrylic-on-canvas paintings of Berlin-based Susanne Jung. The penciled words in the grid of little white gesso works by Chilean native Francisca Reyes, easily missed if you didn't know to look for them, are the same in Spanish and English: sensual, religion, peculiar, criminal.
On the way out of the show, a jolt of adrenalin is provided by the estimable Rossana Martinez, who, in a performance just prior to the show's opening, witnessed by a lucky few, ran a can of orange spray paint at arm's length around the wall of her allotted space, forming a two-foot-high band of roughly parallel lines like a jittery jetstream, fuzzy and electric, spreading out oddly in the corners. The result is Glow. Was it a Happening? An Action? A late-mannerist tag? Streaked with the same orange, a double stack of 4-by-6-inch cards, in an "edition" of 1,000 but each apparently unique, sits in the middle of the floor. Visitors are invited to take one. I confess, I took two -- I just couldn't decide!
Lunching with Everts at the delightful Osteria Gelsi on Ninth Avenue a short walk from the gallery, I noted that half the artists in the show had a Hunter connection: Corio, Crews, Harlow, Hwang, Nicholson and Reyes hold MFAs from the school; Jung and Schuppers also spent some time there. (The progeny of the Pratt Institute is also well represented by Deleget, Hsiao, Karlik and Martinez.) The curator convincingly defended her choices on the grounds that they demonstrate the diversity of strategies pursued by "presentational" painters. Citing particularly the temporary, installation-based work of Harlow and Martinez, she touted the inclusiveness of the selection, and of what has been called the "Hunter College Color Painters" (the painting department is headed by the venerable color-as-structure painter, Robert Swain). Hunter's upcoming MFA thesis exhibition -- the next show at the Times Square Gallery -- should provide ample opportunity to see how true this is.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.