Canada Gallery March 13 - April 20, 2008
In his show Enjambment at Canada Gallery, Matt Connors’ paintings can be charming and refreshing but also exasperatingly clever. Connors builds his work from simple shapes that enact bizarre and engaging formal relationships. Quasi-geometric forms nuzzle together, long stripes come close without touching, and opaque rectangular brushmarks cluster in tenuous harmony. The palette is unique and playful; notes of airy blue and pink are balanced by moody, earthen tones. Connors rarely takes the paintings to a point where the white ground is entirely covered, which contributes to the pieces’ overall flatness. And whenever possible, he uses single strokes, giving his works an appealing economy and spontaneity.
There is nothing spontaneous, however, in the path of references Connors charts. A hodgepodge of modernist sources lurks in the background: in one piece, a bulls-eye shape is reminiscent of Kenneth Noland or Jasper Johns; in another, gauzy layers of thinned paint form a black veil—an unexpected take on stain painting. The lively geometric rigor of Al Held exerts its influence, as does the clunky tenderness of Arthur Dove. Two paintings employ dabs of black paint overlaid onto a gridded blue fabric, which we soon recognize as a preprinted material. Connors has, in an act of witty appropriation, trod the line between Agnes Martin and American Apparel.
After spending time with Connors’ work, however, one is most reminded of the work of Alfred Jensen, whose direct form of painting was as ecstatic as it was grounded in calendars and mathematical systems. Rules provided the scaffolding for a vibrant sense of color and the materiality of paint. Connors too uses rules to limit color and shape, affording each work the structured freedom of a visual investigation. Connors, though, has expanded Jensen’s “rule-based” approach to stretch across entire styles of painting, which at times feels like successful commentary and at others a bit forced. For Connors, as for many painters today, commitment to a single vocabulary or technique would be an anachronism. But breadth and variety, while they may help affirm that painting is not a conservative medium, can come at a cost.
Connors furthers his attempt to position himself above the fray of modernist discourse by focusing as much attention on how the paintings are framed or displayed as on the works themselves. One work, entitled “Reading Room,” is propped up on a shelf, obscuring a slightly larger painting behind it. Another two paintings are hung on a wall that is, except for thin borders, painted yellow. In playing with such framing devices, Connors satirizes the idea that the value of art is in how it is contextually framed, rather than in the object itself.
One painting that goes curiously unframed is a linen canvas, not titled, and flecked sparsely with paint-- apparently used as a testing-board for Connors’ brushes. Perhaps he intended the work as a riff on process art, or an attempt to pun action painting’s grand gesture with miniature flicks of his wrist, but ultimately, the sloppiness of the piece is annoying.
Some of Connors’ more intriguing propositions are invested in his titles. In one painting, a grid is implied by repeated rectangles of paint with drips extending vertically and horizontally in all four directions. The title, “Open Tuning,” conveys the sonic associations of the piece itself, which seems to resonate with subtle blue and white color shifts. But it also alludes to the way the eye climbs up and down the tiers of rectangles like fingers on a fret board. The title of the show is also jouissant: phonetically, “enjambment” suggests “to jam,” “jam in,” or “in-jam,” and echoes the formal arrangements of pieces like “Neon Thinking,” a multicolored field of clustered stripes. Enjambment is also the term for one sentence carried across two lines of poetry, which suggests the repeated forms and materials bridging not only each of Connors’ paintings, but the range of styles and movements in abstract art as well.
By literalizing non-referential painting as the subject of his work, Connors succeeds in poking some fun at modernist Puritanism. But his scattershot approach can undermine his best qualities as a painter, without providing any groundbreaking commentary. Breadth preempts serious investigation, and Connors is left to rely on his innate visual intelligence to carry the day. His art is at its best when, devoting his intellect and imagination to the rules of the painting, he lets himself get a little bit lost in the process.
Josh Morgenthau is an artist and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.