“The New Irascibles,” the inaugural exhibition Andi Campognone curated for her Andi Campognone Projects, asks (and the 10 works by 8 artists answer) a wonderfully simple question.
Namely, “Is Abstraction Alive?”
It’s a timely question because, whether or not anyone’s noticed, we’re heading into the 100th anniversary of abstraction. Around 1909-1910, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Piet Mondrian, Kasmir Malevich, and Wassily Kandinsky were forging this at-the-time revolutionary new artistic style. And so, as this grand old tradition approaches its centenary, what better way to celebrate it than to inquire into its continued relevance?
The show’s title suggests a stubborn allegiance to abstraction. It pays homage to Life Magazine’s January 15, 1951 article that featured artists who protested the anti-abstraction bias of the Metropolitan Museum of Art new American Art exhibition from which they were excluded. This show acknowledges Southern California as its geographic center, just as the 1951 Irascibles posited a New York base.
The difference is, these New Irascibles are celebrating, not brooding (their work is firmly planted in the Southern California mainstream; they exhibit, they get critical exposure, they participate in the art market), and, though their work embodies this sense of exuberance, they are just as stubborn with regard to the relevance of abstraction. Specifically, that it is capable of expression, visually interesting, conceptually powerful, challenging, and regenerative.
As different as the work may appear at first glance, it can nonetheless be described in one of two ways, as gestural, with marks on the surface serving as evidence of inner or outer voyages, on the painted surface or within the soul, or as process-oriented, in which the marks, daubs, incisions, and swaths describe processes of, for example, the passage of time, simultaneity, the seasons, synthesis, memory, and geology.
The gestural work includes Philip Argent’s, “Pendant III,” which majestically combines the sharpness of hard edge abstraction with the dynamic surface compositions of Baroque paintings.
The piece lyrically thwarts the relationship of figure and ground. It’s like looking down into a pool of water, with forms and colors refracted and dissembled by light. This gives the surface a shimmering, unstable effect, as if the composition is but coherent for a moment before it reconfigures into something else. Moving close and then away from the piece offers an exercise in perception: standing back you sense its momentarily calm, then you want to examine it close up, in detail, before it dissolves.
It reads from right to left, slips off the canvas and re-starts below legible from left to right. With its multicolored shapes and the whiplash motion of the shape’s tail, the piece resembles a rainbow colored koi fish making a sudden turn, its tail in tow. Upon the main, central form, oranges fade into pinks; a confetti of colors embellish the tail form below. The edges are crisp but don’t such define shapes as suggest we’ve perceived a moment of an ever-evolving form.
With its array of sketchy squiggles, poignant slashes, and ephemeral curlicues that etch trails across the picture plane, Robert Kingston’s “The Way Home” alternates moments of repose and moments of fury. Some of the marks are tentative, some are authoritative, all point to a journey mapped with peril, frustration, and near misses balanced by eddies of relative calm and stasis, all of which suggest that it’s the journey that’s significant, not the destination.
The shapes in Jimi Gleason’s “Moon Walker” resemble footprints set against a background that shimmers like sunny day, wind-blown sand or else burnished copper ravaged by time. There’s no focal point, the composition just seems to dart from what appears to be one print to the other. The work begs the question “Whose footprints?” which it then answers in one of two ways, both clever, one topical. The work’s title and its shiny surface recalls either the reflection gleaned from first man on the moon Neil Armstrong’s helmet face plate or else the sequins, same-named choreography and stage presence of one recently-departed pop star.
The process work includes Thomas Pathe’s whimsical “Fruit Cocktail,” At first glance it seems to offer a formal analysis of juxtaposed colors and form. The piece is constructed of horizontal bands of polished high-gloss yellows, reds, oranges subjected to a process of sanding down of many, many layers of paint to give the piece depth and resonance. The piece may reference formal juxtapositions of color and form but to schoolchildren of a certain generation, the gravity of the piece rings nostalgic with its reference to the colors found in those little circular tins of fruit diligent mothers placed in lunchboxes and contained bits of cherries, peaches, pineapple, and grapefruit, frozen like ambergris in a patina that recalls the reflection of Formica lunch counters.
His equally whimsical “Parlance (sunburned skin, motor oil, coca cola, martini olive)” shows the degree to which geometric abstraction has become almost invisible in daily life; that it doesn’t necessarily point to anything sublime but is, instead, pedestrian. Though at first glance the highly polished upright rectangles suggest an exercise in the juxtaposition of formal elements, the title suggests abstraction is but one style among many at the artist’s disposal, that these forms are really the stuff we see every day. Perhaps thumbing his nose at Mark Rothko’s aspirations toward eternity, the piece’s subtitle suggests that there is nothing absolute about abstraction, that what he put into a piece with no seeming referents is actually composed of things with which we come in contact every day, namely, the products of a summer’s day: sunburned skin, motor oil, coca cola, and a martini olive.
With its murky, indeterminate, gray background and a black squiggle that suggests a question mark that continues beyond the edge of the canvas, Daniel Brice’s “M.P. #1” suggests a koan, a Japanese statement of paradox used in meditation to better grasp spiritual awakening. Though it's minimally constructed its philosophical implications are enormous. The piece is lyrically muted; the space it inhabits feels spiritual. Three geometric shapes - a vertical rectangle hugs the left edge, two squares abut the right edge – conceived in varying tones of gray comprise the background.
Smack dab in the middle hovers a slight disconnect between the thin line that forms most of the question mark that abuts the left side of the canvas. There's a disproportionate scale between the two lines: the top one is slightly thinner than the bottom one it joins. Near the left edge of the painting the line breaks into two lines: the top one is firm and black, the other one veers slightly down, as if it didn't have the energy to complete its voyage to the edge.
Likewise with a thin black band that skirts the top right of the piece: it doesn't quite reach the right vertical edge. The portion that's missing, an inch or so at most, is found half way down the right edge, disembodied and alone, hovering in that murky gray background.
The more you look at the piece the more you realize that, though the piece appears as an integrated whole, it is really made of scores of minute breaches, suggesting a spirituality of imperfection which, as with a koan, is nothing more than the starting point of wisdom.
Composed of dense and coarsely painted layers of mostly green and red brush strokes, the energetic surface of Max King Cap’s, “Ekrixi (eruption)” roils with a vertical motion as if about to erupt in a bottled upward toward, perhaps through, a yellow halo at the top of the canvas. The title alludes to both the Greek word Ekrixi, which means explosion and the Sanskrit word ekriXo that means crown, particularly in the context of that worn by Lord Shiva who restores the balance to the universe through a process of balance and rejuvenation. With the strokes that suggest foliage, lava, destruction and rebirth of an entire ecosystem at the hands of a cosmic big bang, the piece acknowledges the simultaneous Orphist paintings of Robert Delaunay in which different periods of time, the effects of light and movement, are incorporated into the same painting.
The horizon line of Andy Moses’s, “Desert Light,” is vague, which serves to blend the ground and the sky into a meditative reflection of lavenders, purples, oranges, blues, and browns panoramically stretched across the surface in wispy horizontal strands. The texture of the work is striated, suggesting archeological strata. Though the look of the piece is abstract, it’s really a people-less, thing-less atmospheric convocation (Think of Monet and his Rouen Cathedral series) of dust, sand, wind, water and sky to present a pulsating mosaic of the passing of time, either seen as a sunrise or sunset. On purpose the canvas is gently arced concavely, to neatly suggest the curvature of the Earth.
Considering his work more abstract than representational, due to the strong graphic element of the canvases, Greg Rose drew the titles of “Rikka 1” and “Rikka 2” from a style of flower arrangement that Japanese Buddhists originated in the 15th century. Symbolic in nature, the style is meant to suggest nature’s resplendence and bounty: a white chrysanthemum, for instance, is meant to suggest a river.
Originally a style meant to commemorate ceremonies and rituals, in Rose’s hands the connotations are somewhat more sinister. With their prickly, sharp edges and sinuous shapes, evident in both the positive and negative spaces prevalent in each canvas, the floral clusters reach to the sky like the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion. The colors can best be described as nauseous, if not threatening. The composition, however, is balanced: the vertical thrust of the flowers and their stems rest perpendicular to the horizontal railing, suggesting a nervous tension struck between danger and beauty, a suitable metaphor for a world poised on the brink of man-made or natural calamity.