Suggestive abstraction and temporal meditations at Artspace
50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
John Bent: Suspended Animation 1 & 2
Through Mar. 29, 2008
Is representational abstract art a contradiction in terms? Possibly, but the show Unnameable Things, curated by painter Clint Jukkala and hanging in Artspace's Gallery 1, offers an argument otherwise. The imagery in most of these paintings straddles the line between representation and abstraction, teasing perception with the suggestion of recognition.
Unlike the Abstract Expressionism of figures like Jackson Pollock, most of these works aren't formalist romps in the interaction of paint and surface. Yet, neither do they "describe" identifiable subjects, be they figures, landscape or still life. What they do is hint at form.
Palma Blank-Rosenblum's paintings are wonderfully layered exercises in devising imaginary machines. Like exploded technical; drawings, her works portray the guts of an aestheticized technology. At the Feb. 7 opening, she noted that she works in layers, from back to front. Perspective is important to her forms, she said, "but not real perspective—isometric perspective." She referred to it as "sculpting through flatness." Her large "Machine P107"-a device with the seeming purpose of levitating a red cube-has entrails of piping, networks of air ducts and detailed maze-work of circuitry. The composition sits on the canvas in a kind of flattened faux perspective. Up close, it's clear that the imagery is layered with tape. There are illusions of translucency and bursts of gaseous liquids approximated by spray paint.
Where Blank-Rosenblum crafts an abstract geometry into the illusion of technology, Chuck Webster paints works that suggest natural forms. Blank-Rosenblum varies her surfaces to enhance the effect of depth and component interaction. Webster's surfaces are buffed to a smooth shine. For oil paintings, they have a very plastic presence. "Slow Path"—an oil on panel—features a long thin form that curls in upon itself. Colored reddish and regularly marked off in segments, it reminded me of a nightcrawler. It was an association enhanced by the black that filled the open space inside the area it bounded and by the green that surrounds it (although, it should be noted, not an association that Webster mentioned in his remarks at the opening). The forms in his other paintings evoked associations as disparate as bacteria, teardrops, tapeworms, trees and tonsils. The compositions are simple and his color application basically flat with little volume modeling or shading.
It seemed to me that a similar approach was at work in Baker Overstreet's two large acrylic paintings, "Good Grief" and "Nice Rack." Overstreet also traffics in simplified form and predominantly flat colors, although in the latter case not so much as Webster. His works featured horizontal mirror-image symmetry, reminding me of Rorschach inkblots, perhaps a fitting projection. (And the conscious urge to project a name or association on this imagery is one of the key elements holding this show together.) Both paintings had sections with white or off-white rounded color marked with two vertical black slots. I saw either pig snouts or electrical outlets. Interpretation?
Chris Martin's paintings incorporate other elements-he uses charcoal in one as well as colored pompoms ("The Pom Pom Painting") and gold holiday garland on "Pink & Green (Homage to Tamara Gonzales)." The interaction of the pompoms, authoritative this charcoal lines and bursts of dayglo orange spray paint in "The Pom Pom Painting" generate a series of interconnections and a pulsating sense of movement. "Pink & Green" is dominated by rounded bright green forms upright in a field of neon pink. The border is decked with an undulating gold Christmas garland. The green forms resemble ripe succulent plants, or cactus without the needles; there is also a lusty female curvaceousness apparent. The painting glows, both because of the stark way that the green and pink rub up against each other and because Martin has emphasized the curves of the forms with zaps of white and black spray paint.
I particularly enjoyed the painterly approach of both Carrie Moyer and Keltie Ferris. Moyers' "Rope Dancer Returns" is, for me, the highlight of the show. It effectively blends intimations of figurative presences with expanses of flat color and a form that contrasts with the grays, whites and beiges by bleeding a wash of delicious intermingling color. Ferris' two canvases, worked with a combination of acrylics, oils and spray paint, most noticeably evoke classic Abstract Expressionism. Colors sweep in and through each other. There is an obvious delight in decorating the surface of each canvas. Ferris' generous use of metallic silver color imbues the paintings with a contemporary urban feel—a shiny dumpster graffiti-trashed for the greater glory of art.
I found Matt Connors' three paintings to be disappointing. The concatenation of shapes and the use of color didn't seem to add up to coherent compositions. To my eyes, the forms were juxtaposed next to each other but didn't interact in any meaningful way.
As I stood in Gallery 1, jotting notes about the Unnameable Things show, I could hear the audio track to John Bent's "Suspended Animation 1." It sounded like one very angry stomach growling. It was a good thing i ate before coming to Artspace or I would have had to leave to grab a sandwich. Bent's installations are in the two Artspace rest rooms, now known as Gallery 6 and formerly the locus of the John/Jane Projects.
"Suspended Animation 1" digs into our guts. The animation, projected high on the wall facing the sink and toilet, features Bent's drawings of entrail-like forms. They curl around each other like an orgy of earthworms, enlarging and shrinking in a simulation of breath or some other cyclical internal organic activity. The accompanying soundtrack has a repetitive quality, like the run-out of a vinyl record stuck in successive crackly grooves. The projected animation is framed by more drawings on the wall in collaged black and white paper and a dripping wash of orange and black. From the ceiling above the video, Bent installed chunky orange stalactites, speckled with red glitter toward the tips.
The external processes of aging evoked by "Suspended Animation 2" complement the internal processes suggested by "Suspended Animation 1". Accompanied by a soundtrack of crackly white noise and guttural growls, video of Bent's impassive face is increasingly spidered by an overlay of lines suggestive of wrinkles. It is as though the frozen visage of life is becoming more brittle by the moment, threatening to crack apart. Where "Suspended Animation 1" offers a sense of circular time, "Suspended Animation 2" plays, in one sense, as more of an evocation of the workings of linear time. But also, by running on a repeated loop, it also suggests the way linear time can become cyclical through generations.