Weltanschauung and Abstract Paintingby Robert C. Morgan
Spectrum Metaphor Contemporary Art May 2 – June 1, 2008
This is Karate! Von Lintel Gallery April 17 – May 17, 2008
While we may speak about the common factor between these two exhibitions as being abstraction or, more precisely, abstract painting, there are some interesting differences between the two. The exhibition at Metaphor Contemporary art, titled Spectrum, consists of four artists, each dealing preeminently with color in relation to variations of shape and form. The other exhibition at Von Lintel Gallery is about two artists relating interactively to one another’s work by sending work back and forth in order to reach a point of stasis within the problematic kinesis of their mutual, though differing pictorial energies. In either case, there is a kind of worldview, a Weltanschauung, in which the artists are striving to obtain a sense of meaning. The first is more aligned with a kind of modernist referentiality through thematic forms and processes, while the latter struggles to pull an Eastern idea—what Westerners call “martial arts”—into the fray of aesthetic engagement, suggesting a kind of modernism beyond the pale of normative standards, a postmodernism that defies any critical intervention into the work of a single artist.
Spectrum has two meanings: the first is the exhibition’s relationship to the spectrum of color, which includes the mixing of hues and values, while the second implies the range of variations and permutations in terms of form, style, and subject matter. The major work in the Spectrum exhibition—in terms of scale and majesty—is by Gabriele Evertz, titled “Four Reds and Ice Blues” (2008). The painting measures 144 inches high by 108 inches wide. This mega-optical-style painting consists of discreetly painted vertical stripes with variations of reds and blues equidistantly punctuating the visual field. The verticality of the stripes ascends forcefully upward and thus gives the viewer a retinal charge. Like her mentor Joseph Albers, Evertz has studied color theory and, therefore, knows it well enough to break the rules. As with most forms of optical art, the virtual surface floats in front of the material one. Put another way, the intricate placement of the form and color pushes the illusion not behind the surface as in the seventeenth-century Roman landscapes of Claude Lorrain, but infront of it. In other words, Evertz’s contribution to painting—similar to that of the pioneer “op artist,” Richard Anuszkiewicz—is to reverse the order of illusionism in the history of painting. Rather than the retinal gaze being manipulated inward, it now moves outward and settles optically in front of the foreground. The augmented scale of the painting makes this kind of reception possible.
The other three painters in the exhibition—Margaret Neill, Julie Gross, and Elizabeth Terhune—each employ diverse methods of their own. While we can say that each of the four artists in Spectrum are concerned with visuality on some stylistic level, only Evertz appears intentionally optical. In Margaret Neill’s painting, “Skylark,” the muted curves, painted in blues and earth tones, fold in upon one another. The hand-painted, hard-edge quality of the work is intriguing, which is only apparent upon a closer view. To get an accurate view of Neill’s painting requires a perpetual adjustment to the physical and perceptual space between oneself and the painting, thus allowing the curves to function as a kinetic interlude. Julie Gross’s gouache circles painted on vellum also employ a hard-edge technique as they overlap or combine with one another in various, seemingly unpremeditated maneuvers. Her precision in modeling the paint is impressive. Besides the formality, there is a kind of metaphorical reading in Gross’ finely-tuned, overlapping circles that implies sociological relationships or the process by which conscious thought evolves towards memory. Finally, Elizabeth Terhune works on linen in a relatively small scale. The paint handling is rough and delicate, yet accurate in its spatial orientation. The colors are sometimes muddled yet resonate with light. These are intimate paintings, which provide a kind of antidote to the more upscaled perception of international-style painting found in the work of Evertz.
This is Karate! at the Von Lintel Gallery evolves from another point of view, another worldview, as performed by two artists: Marco Breuer and Arnold Helbling. Abstraction is not limited to a single idea, just as abstract painting is not a single kind of painting. A painting’s interpretative potential may vary according to the context in which it is painted. In spite of the fundamental affinities that artists retain—in the use of primary shapes and other related morphologies—abstract painting has evolved as a highly versatile expression. In This is Karate! Breuer and Helbling play with the notion of exchanging works on paper. Instead of leaving a work in the state it was received, the artists begin tampering with one another’s compositions. This may include adding or subtracting visual signs, erasing a mark on the surface, or by revising the color coordinates. They do not ask each other’s permission. Rather they extend or alter the colleague’s work and then return it. The returned work remains open to further tampering or alteration.
To explain this dyadic process is both complex and obvious. In the ritual of karate, one may concede victory to one’s opponent either with or without a visible gesture. To put it simply, Breuer and Helbling are challenging the concept of completeness or the finality of each other’s work to the point where their mutual criticisms eventually exceed the rites of collaboration. The opposition suddenly is transformed into a single work, a holistic action where eventually one or the other will make the decision to stop. The results are deeply intriguing and beautiful. One senses the traces and marks of the two artists struggling to defy one another, yet at the same time enduring the painterly process to such an extent that they become fully unified. One might argue—in contrast to the Spectrum exhibition—that the joint paintings of Breuer and Helbling are involved with a type of collective consciousness. As a third party, the observer is liberated to offer a critical evaluation of the work not from the position of an individual artist’s psyche but from the concurrence of two acting as one, both functioning as a single force, as in karate, thus allowing another kind of worldview to come into focus. In either case, whether in Spectrum or Karate, the Weltanschauung is a definitive mark upon time by way of pure painterly intuition.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.