Sarah Moody Gallery of Art
University of Alabama
19 November – 19 December 2004
In an exhibition entitled “quanta,” at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Linda Francis shows paintings and drawings that draw on physics to premise patterns for the development of form in nature. Her work extrapolates form from a grid of hexagonally packed circles. In doing so it plays on the pictorial boundary between two and three dimensions.
The paintings are restrained but not dry. Their surfaces are broadly brushed in paint fat with oil. Their smoothness is not a fetish, but a condition of the paint and the board which it covers. What forms occupy these surfaces are painted generously and persuasively. The artist’s strenuously controlled contour and line is clearly a product of focus, not technical aids. This lends a warmth to the cerebral content of her work, linking the mind and the body in a way only painting can.
On first perusal of the show, it is difficult to avoid focusing on “The Square and the Tortoise.” In a show dominated by works in shades of grey, “The Square and the Tortoise” is cadmium red. At 72 x 72 inches , it dominates the rear wall of the gallery’s longest wing. Four interlacing circles traced in white occupy its upper right. A second set of four, twice the size and more tightly interlaced, overlaps it. A third set fills the picture plane enclosing a final, centered circle representing the unified set. The circles form a web of white lines of equal width that keeps the eye moving ceaselessly on the painting’s surface. The overlap of the circles simultaneously suggests their movement in three dimensions.
Francis’s drawings seem to underpin the thinking in her large paintings. She gives volume to her circular grids by rendering and erasing line after line of black chalk over their surfaces. In one small untitled drawing, she allows the negative space between lines to produce floating, two dimensional forms. In another drawing, entitled “Twist,” (1997), a set of lines detaches itself from the grid to form a floating double helix that might be seen as a measure of the scope Francis envisions for her work. The drawing’s logic, as I see it, goes like this: the circle’s continuous, two-dimensional space implies the three-dimensionality of the sphere from which we might derive the plurality of matter’s forms. By allowing the double helix to take such prominent place in a large drawing, Francis seems to invite her viewers to consider her grids as visual proxies for the building blocks of life itself.
The spatial tension in these paintings has its parallel in physics. Through physics, we now understand that space is not continuous but curved back on itself, contained like an object. We know that it has a presence in the form of energy which is composed of particles. Space, then, has a nature more akin to that of matter than to the absence thereof. Truly empty space, we learn, is hard to find. The confounding of two and three-dimensionality in Francis’s painting suggests their intimate link. Just as physics teaches us that a concept of space devoid of matter is misleading, so Francis’s art points out that, at the root of the theoretically flat, one might locate the volumetric.
One large painting, “Fours,” (2004) suggests an antecedent to Francis’s concept of an art based in physics in the work of her former teacher, Tony Smith. The piece’s composition is imposing. On a tall rectangle, circles overlap in shades of gray, the center of one congruent with the space between the four behind. The circles’ boundaries are distinct at times, obscured at others. Over these stacked orbs, in a thin line of yellow, Francis picks out two sets of four. The groupings’ shapes unavoidably call to mind Smith’s series The Louisenberg.
“The waves of the sea, the little ripples on the shore, the sweeping curve of the sandy bay between the headlands, the outline of the hills ,the shape of the clouds, all are so many riddles of morphology,” writes D’Arcy Wentworth Thomson in “On Growth and Form.” Tony Smith is known to have studied and admired this book. Its influence can be seen to shape the thought behind his late sculpture in which simple geometric forms, repeated in space, are often made to evoke natural phenomena. Such logic is present in Francis’s work. She contrives to do in painting, what Smith could only accomplish through sculpture: to break free of two-dimensional constraints without violating her medium. In doing so, she excavates the structures behind nature’s strangest forms.