by Jason Stopa
LMAK| February 9, 2018 - March 18, 2018
Nate Ethier’s recent exhibit at LMAK is titled Wilderness, and the eight paintings in this show walk us through geometric abstraction’s endless possibilities. Ethier’s mid-size paintings engage in a regenerative abstraction. The artist paints geometric forms built up through color shifts, transparencies, and opacities, but form is never quite solid. He uses repetitive shapes that act as motifs creating geometric patterns, offset by washy, gradient fields or painterly swirling marks against matte, flat blacks and purple-blues lending these works a stark, graphic quality. Ethier engages in two kindred painting approaches in this show, with some works that are tight and loose, and others that are slicker, paired downed versions of the former. His use of acrylic is similar to Prisma color colored markers, the kinds of doodles one would make in a sketchbook where the filmy medium saturates into the paper, but here it is tightened, scaled up, and the effect bears unanticipated results.
A familiar criticism of geometric abstract painting is that it is predictable and leads to already well-trodden territory. This is the case in the works of many young abstract painters today. The model is as follows: hone a technique and then churn out uninspired versions of once major painting. In contrast, Ethier has more than a few clever techniques at his disposal. These are works that complicate the binaries—figure/ground, surface/image, systems/chaos, and joy/sadness. Other critics today seem to ask a terribly naive question: why abstraction in a time of political and social crisis? This logic would seem to indicate that the only way to address the world is to be matter of fact. Good paintings, abstract or representational, transmute content, enfolding whatever subject at hand into its language—the more specific the painting language the more interesting the painting. The reverse is not true.
Ethier is in good company with this suite of pop-abstractions, aligning himself with painters like Dan Walsh, Gary Petersen, and Holly Coulis. Walsh and Petersen both make process paintings beginning with a defined set of rules where simple forms repeat and sometimes break with a sequence, creating a dialog between systems and chaos. Ethier engages in the same polarities but includes the gesture to offset his geometry. Coulis is interested in a still life that meets abstraction, and uses radiating colored contours that make all her objects stand out or recede. Ethier’s paintings are a middle ground between these sensibilities, with works that veer closer to pure abstraction, yet with forms and titles that are the occasional nod to the landscape.
Clouds & Rainbows (2017) is an example of such a nod, masterfully executed in two canvases with a pastel pink, baby blue, and creamy yellow bar pattern that creates a color field first layer. On top of this lie purple and ochre chevron patterns, vertical, black T shapes, and patches of black gestural marks that punctuate the entire work. It evokes a horizon full of contrasts and dualities. The layering is baffling, the patterns are complex, and the imagery vacillates between over and under. Bisecting this work into two panels suggests a certain self-consciousness about the painting’s status as a unique, irreproducible object and copy.
Paintings like Midnight Choir (2017) operate in a subtler manner with offset rectangles and triangles divided into high key contrasts of large, light and dark L brackets that vertically descend. This painting engages in some deeper tonal ranges with plenty of moody atmosphere and a sobering title lifted from Leonard Cohen’s melancholic 1969 song “Bird on the Wire.” It’s a fitting work for a year that left a bitter taste in the mouth of Americans. The lighter L brackets are made of creamy yellows, pale orange, baby blues, cerulean, cadmium red, and a bright purple, whereas the darker L brackets are composed of dark blues and purples and blacks, causing the lighter L shapes to recede, cut out of the painting, and at other times advance out of the plane with near-illusionistic depth. This work has less hard edge geometry and a bit more painterly exploration lending it a softer read.
Not Fade Away (2017) is the most sober painting in the show, capturing a longing to keep a sense of hope and joy in an uncertain world. Here, jubilant, rainbow-colored gestural hash marks are composed of vivid reds, orange, blues, purples, and yellows and vary in hue and opacity. Each set of marks occupies a square format, glazed over with varying tonalities producing a grid pattern. Six large black triangles break the painting into upper, middle, and lower sections. Upon first read, the triangles appear to be rather dense, with a closer look they too vary in hue and surface with some sections painted dry and matte against glossy, polished patches. The triangles anchor the painting, without overly weighting it, maintaining a buoyancy of form achieved by subtle glazing. This painting, which is the first one in Ethier’s latest series, is the lynchpin of the show. Wilderness as a group of paintings do not belie their moment; rather, they are deeply engaged with the sentiment of a shifting political and social landscape, proving once again that abstraction can just as easily speak to an external world as well as representation, and in this case, with more poignancy than some of the more illustrative and wanting examples of politically-charged painting today.
JASON STOPA is a painter and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He received his BFA from Indiana University and his MFA from Pratt Institute. He is a contributing writer to Art in America online, Hyperallergic, and the Brooklyn Rail. He teaches at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Pratt Institute, and The School of Visual Arts.