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James Little

Beyond Geometry
L.I.C.K. LTD Fine Arts

Diagonals whip the length of James Little’s six large canvases at L.I.C.K. LTD Fine Arts. Adjacent lines converge at the paintings’ edges to form a series of multicolored wedges of varying dimensions flip-flopping through each image. Little reinforces this triangular architecture with intense, repetitive brushwork and flawless attention to surface.

Although Mondrian would turn over in his grave at the thought of so many diagonals, the modern master’s influence is apparent in Little’s work. Both artists impose strict formal limitations on themselves, then work within those limitations to create compositional variety. In “Portrait of a Star,” the exhibit’s most successful painting, Little shows just how much he can do with limited means. The painting’s effect hinges on a pair of narrow triangles, a black and a red, at a forward slash angle just off center to the viewer’s left. As you gaze at the painting, the two triangles disengage from their patterned landscape and form a bar in pictorial space. This sets off a ripple effect in which triangles alternately recede and project. Little even manages to animate the two large triangles, yellow and green, which sit heavily on either side of the canvas. The painting seems specific, like a distilled version of a witnessed event, or perhaps, given its title, an imagined one.

In their diagonal emphasis, Little’s paintings call to mind off-kilter EKGs, recording the artist’s activity instead of the brain’s. EKGs yield good results when there’s a lot of activity, and the same goes for Little’s paintings. The more varied the angles of the diagonals in a painting, the greater the range and speed of movement. Likewise, the greater the range of colors, the greater the potential for visual associations and optical effects. In “False Positive,” on the other hand, the regularity of the diagonal Little employs makes the painting monotonous. Its predominantly warm palette flattens the image.

Little is inspired by the woven textiles of native African and American cultures. His paintings work best when they integrate the structure of visual experience with these traditional crafts. The paintings fail when their sources are too clearly evident on their surfaces.

The exhibition’s large paintings suggest a studied, meticulous approach to image making à la Joseph Albers. Their colors and compositions seem carefully conceived. Yet the four water color sketches that kick off the exhibition provide unexpected evidence to the contrary. Little allows wet washes of color to mix and dry on the paper’s surface. Over this amorphous tapestry of color, he imposes his diagonal geometry. The drawings are simple and charming in execution and suggest an organic approach to picture making quite dissimilar to Albers’s theory-driven painting. Little’s drawings crystallize into his paintings, becoming sharp. In the best of the latter, the former’s spontaneity is left intact.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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