Variety Trumps Argument at the Bronx River Art Center
The Working Title, Organized by Progress Report, at the Bronx River Art Center
March 25 to April 29, 2011
305 East 140th Street #1A
Hours: Wednesday through Friday, 3:00 to 6:30 pm
Saturday, 12:00 to 5:00 pm.
Subway: #6 train to 3rd Avenue/138th Street.
Devise a cohesive fiction, or report the scattershot facts? The nature and purpose of curation is an issue in “The Working Title,” a lively but unfocused exhibition of 32 abstract artists, mostly painters, on view at the Bronx River Art Center through April 29. The show is assembled by Progress Report, the online and curatorial project of Vince Contarino and Kris Chatterson, who opt for fidelity to abstraction’s currently schizophrenic condition rather than identify and analyze a dominant personality. According to the show’s press release, the curators eschew artists who adhere to “the doctrine of romantic sentimentality” — an oxymoron if ever there was one. Otherwise, the connective tissue is stretched thin.
The show is engaging nevertheless, as it includes fine work by both recognized and undersung talents. An inventive and resourceful colorist, Pamela Jorden contributes the shadowy but buoyant Echo Music (2010) in which brushy patches and smears of lugubrious near-blacks and rumbling, pungent blues underscore a dazzling range of scraped, glazed, silver-tinted grays. Jordan does not conceal her pleasure in finding her way forward toward the painting’s resolution, guided by impulse, taste and faith in her pictorial proclivities. If her sensibility isn’t romantic, then it’s very close.
Matthew Deleget’s work resides toward the other end of abstraction’s spectrum as the realization, on a painted surface, of a preconceived procedural idea. The colors in Shuffle (for Grandmaster Flash) (2011) are selected at random—yellow, pink, fluorescent orange and copper predominate—and arranged by means of a predetermined system of recombination within a four-by-four unit grid. Abstraction as perceptual research, Shuffle is an extreme instance of the empirical attitude that underlies much of the work in the show, which is alert to pictorial strategies rather than intent on fetishizing subjectivities.
A sense of architectonic scale arises from interpenetrating rectangles and triangles in black, red, and two variants of yellow in Untitled (very tizdayle) (2009) by Tisch Abelow. Abelow’s handling is flat and graphic but the painting’s space craftily shakes itself loose from rigid geometry to suggest a modernist façade, a cantilevered balcony, a sun-washed portico, or an edifice in the middle distance. Nearby is Joy Curtis’s towering, chalk-white St. Virga (2010), a work in hydrocal, fiberglas, wood and metal in which cast fragments of fluted pilasters dangle like an ungrounded pillar, contacting neither ceiling nor floor and implying havoc and destruction—or at best, impermanence. The piece recalls the work of Lynda Benglis in its precise equivalence of process and image.
In fact, all the three-dimensional works in “The Working Title” relate at least as strongly to pictorial space as they do to physical space. Resolutely planar, Inna Babaeva’s More Than You Think (2011) consists of a half-dozen painting stretchers of various dimensions, hinged together in a free-standing accordion fold and strapped with translucent colored plastic. Letha Wilson weighs in with the peculiar but compelling Double Dip (2009), two thin strips of plywood bent into teardrop shapes, pinned to the wall by their pointy ends, and lined on their inner surfaces with photographs of verdant woodland. A punch line among colors gets a little respect in Stacy Fisher’s Fuchsia Sculpture With Wood (2010) in which a squarish blob roughly brushed with the flamboyant hue is lodged between blocks of lumber stained a plain-Jane brown. Pushing and pulling space even as it hugs the wall, the piece functions like a painting.
That undercurrent of humor is sustained throughout the show. E. J. Hauser’s spaceman (2010) inscribes a discombobulated argyle pattern in red-orange and white on a blue-black shape that reads instantly as the helmeted head of a spaceman—or motorcycle daredevil, or linebacker. Echo Helmet (2010) by Britton Tolliver reprises the domed shape, inverted and approximately mirroring itself, via juicy slabs of waxy-looking paint in quietly radiant tones. While the motif of protective headgear is completely appropriate to such a cerebral exhibition, the presence of all this recognizable imagery prompts the question of how the curators define abstraction. They dodge that task, as (from the press release again) these artists may merely “use abstraction as a starting point.” Ah.
What is clear is Progress Report’s skepticism of the high seriousness with which abstract painters of fifty years ago regarded the existential confrontation with the void of the blank canvas—as nothing less than a search for the self. Oh, well. Now that the self is swept up and bounced around in a proliferating matrix of provisional, contingent relationships, it has no fixity and the effort to locate it is a fool’s errand.
Among the show’s other standouts are Keltie Ferris’s Black Power (2010) with its jazzy, nested chevrons and fizzy spots festooning a meandering rectilinear polygon the color of dirt; Cordy Ryman’s Vector (2010), a studiously clunky low relief of two-by-fours painted serene green-blues (half-hidden, hot orange flare-ups provide chromatic sizzle) gouged with six intersecting grooves that radiate like the spokes of a wheel and allude to the face of a clock; and Dennis Hollingsworth’s maniacally overwrought Todo es Igual (2011) in which—and on which—paint is coaxed into bloom as in a hothouse. Rather than advancing an argument regarding the thrust of contemporary abstraction, “The Working Title” replicates its variety. But with friends like these, who needs curators?