Surface Tension: William Corwin on Amalia Piccinini and Stephen Maine
Amalia Piccinini: Exile at Art 101
April 25 to May 18, 2014
101 Grand Street (between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue)
Brooklyn, 718 302 2242
Stephen Maine: Halftone Paintings at 490 Atlantic Gallery
April 5 to May 10, 2014
490 Atlantic Avenue (between Nevins Street and Third Avenue)
Brooklyn, 718 344 4856
Surface and the illusion of surface are the heart of the matter in the work of two abstract painters whose recent exhibitions in Brooklyn dangle the mystery of process and the indisputable facticity of material before the viewer. Stephen Maine’s paintings utilize a Luddite methodology that mimics and critiques the patterns of higher-tech dot printing processes while Amalia Piccinini coats her canvases in skeins of dark stains with accretions of paint, forming a self-consciously imperfect and mottled texture. Both artists circumvent typical questions of composition, instead conceptualizing painting as coating, skin or happy coincidence: within these alternative parameters though, they generate a considered reappraisal of recognized tropes.
Piccinini’s approach to paint explicitly invites many interpretations. Unabashedly abstract, they nonetheless invoke the underside of a Tiepolo thunderhead or the hills in the background of an El Greco crucifixion — there is a classicizing painterly style at work here. But her method of applying oil and acrylic paint implies both intentionality and accident, and revels in pushing the viewer into a position of interlocutor with the canvas. Her gloomy, dark pieces are a primer of references to Abstract Expressionism; the entire canon of that period contributes details, but as an artist she is less precious or egocentric and more mischievous. Resembling fireworks fading in a dark sky, Touch (2014) is a light-absorbing darkling canvas — transparent colors drizzle and trickle into nothing, and as they do, the pigment encounters dried bumps on the surface. Though there is the sense that the colors fulfill a careful and valuable role within the artist’s canvas, it is also apparent that they have been added later and are forced to contend with the preexisting lumps, scuffs and scumbles on the surface. Into this milieu Piccinini also adds glazes, creating pools of glittering reflectivity, versus regions of brooding matte black.
Stephen Maine’s Halftone paintings harness that seductive graininess of imperfect technological reproduction. Using a monoprinting or stamping method to apply acrylic to the canvas, he layered veils of dots of various tints and hues over each other and in so doing generates a picture plane that on the one hand insists on some unknown algorithm of order — implicit in the idea of mechanical reproduction is the assumption that there is a tool interface, a disjunction between the hand of the artist and the final work of art, allowing for repetition. Conversely, Maine’s process is purposely flawed in terms of reproducibility; he doesn’t know what the end result will be and therefore the pieces are inevitably unique. The images are titled in numbered series, with a mock scientific rigor, as for example: HP13-0701, HP13-0702, HP13-0704 and HP13-0706 (all 2013). These four are all identical in size (20 x 16 inches) and do resemble each other in color — light blue points over an orange background — but their similarities are like a stop motion sequence of a cloud or billow of smoke. The viewer finds herself uncomfortably situated between the cartoonish deconstruction of the printed image of Lichtenstein or Polke and the indulgence in mechanical process of Warhol’s silkscreens. Within this context Maine’s gorgeous paintings seem like casual studies of entropy, a wily clockmaker winding up a machine to produce sexy mistakes.
HP12-1212 (2012) layers an inconsistent field of black pixels over a pale ochre base. It yields an imaginative graphic cartography that the mind automatically leaps to find some recognizable point of reference for. If we can’t discern the metaphorical value behind the strength of one patch over another, as in a topographical diagram, the patterns of darkness and blind spots in the imprint offer an insight into the primitive and capricious nature of Maine’s process. But it is impossible to tell if the original pattern is identical to its doppelganger, or if something was lost in translation. Along the edge, the background bursts through like a slide melting in a projector, but again the singular idiosyncrasies of the surface belie the fact that though this looks like a copy, it is one with no apparent referent. The familiarity is very confounding. HP11-0402 (2011) is less frustrating, but again for no reason in particular except that the black dots are more material and they lie over a vibrant orange base and approximate a composition with more finality — the devil is in the details.
Piccinini’s pieces are more amorphously formed and much more diffuse in their legibility. Untitled (2013), a horizontal black canvas with eruptions of orange that vary in degrees of saturation — burning brightly, but quickly melting back into the black or floating off in ghostly sheets and billows — perhaps projects a sense of despair and deep, unsettled anger on the part of the artist. Piccinini embraces the proclivities of the media to flow and pool and seeks to erase a sense of hand. She engages in the psychological game of pushing our buttons with color, and though all the works evince a visceral response through the aforementioned art-imitating-nature application of pure abstraction, some, such as the multicolored Touch and Privilege (2014), employ a more stilted and painterly, but more effective approach to luring in the viewer.
The amped up imitation of natural randomness is a favorite pastime of the abstract painter: the hallucinogenic marble passages in Fra Angelico, Hockney’s meditations on ripples in a pool or Alex Hay’s reproductions of wood grain and cracked paint. Both Piccinini and Maine inhabit the interstitial realm of having their paintings appear reminiscent of something, but that resemblance is to the most ambiguous of models: cloudy landscapes and blown-up Xeroxes. In line with their fabrication, the paintings seem imitative of process itself. Various crystalline effulgences appear to well up from Piccinini’s paintings while Maine’s conceit may be time-based: oxidation or the leaching away of a surface.