Walking Through "Abstraction" at Pentimenti

Gallery-goers were at least ankle deep in "one 
to three inches" of snow last Saturday in Philadelphia's Old City, which had turned into a cold and inhospitable land of slushy white stuff. Fortunately Pentimenti Gallery was host to the warmer and much more inviting Territory of Abstraction.  

Cold and snowy outside on North 2nd Street in Philly

Warm and chromatically inviting within
Pentimenti photo

Pentimenti's owner, Christine Pfister, has curated 12 artists into an exhibition that reflects a reductivist approach to geometry, color and pattern. "When put together, their work showcases the expansive nature of contemporary abstract art and the potential content of relatively simple forms," she says.

I'm one of the artists in the exhibition, so consider this post a walk-through with commentary. We start with the view above, which looks at the main gallery as you enter. Below and in subsequent photos I'll take you around, first the main gallery, then a peek into the Project Room--which has been put into use as an additional gallery space for the show--and then the side gallery. This exhibition is firing on all cylinders!

I love the way Pfister's selections allow us to experience the various "territories" so that they amplify and complement one another chromatically, geometrically, optically, materially, conceptually. Actually, I'm going to refer to her as Christine, which reflects the conversational tone of the opening and of the Q&A that took place, which you'll find when you scroll down past the installation shots. (As always, all photos are mine unless otherwise noted.)

In the main gallery from left: Edgar Diehl, Enrico Gomez, Steven Baris, Gilbert Hsaio. Brent Hallard

We swing around past the desk at the far end of the gallery to see work by Gabriele Evertz on the back wall, and Mel Prest and Gracia Khouw on the right side of the main gallery wall. 
To the right, in a narrower space you glimpse my five paintings hanging in a row in the distance, plus work by Hsaio, Gomez, Rob de Oude, and Khouw

Below: Here's a better view of paintings by Evertz, Prest and Khouw. 
In the distance is the Project Room, pressed into service for the exhibition . . .

. . . where you see two works on paper by de Oude, a painting by Prest, and three framed constructions by Debra Ramsay

Closer view of Ramsay's work below

As we step back from the Project Room, our view is of Evertz to the left and me to the right

Stepping back farther, we have a view of the smaller side gallery with a painting and sculpture by Kevin Finklea on the left, the Evertz painting, the Project Room, my row of paintings, and the pieces by Hsaio and Gomez

Here's a better view of Finklea's work, reductive geometry in planar and dimensional form

Opposite Finklea's work are paintings from my Chromatic Geometry series, with Gomez in the distance

As we focus on the distance--which is actually the front of the gallery--we see Gomez, de Oude, and Khouw . . .

 . . . whom you see in a closer view here

Also from the back of the gallery looking toward the front are paintings by Brent Hallard, foreground, Hsaio, Baris, Gomez and Diehl

Q&A With Christine Pfister

I've refrained from commenting on the work until now, because Christine invited me to have a Q&A session in the gallery with her as the visitors listened in. 

At the opening a group gathers around Christine Pfister and me

She had emailed me her questions ahead of time, which allows me to share my notes with you here. I don't remember most of the off-the-cuff remarks (you know how it is when you're speaking in front of a group and trying to concentrate while making it look as if the information is just flowing out). But I did begin by commenting that the history of this exhibition was well represented by two important people in the gallery: Mel Prest, who took a suitcase exhibition of a few artists throughout Europe in 2013, and Mary Birmingham, who recently curated an expanded version of Prest's concept as Doppler Shift at the Visual Art Center of New Jersey. (My walk through of that show, with more about its formation, is here.)

Working with a smaller number of artists from the show, Christine focused in large measure on color and material, hewing to the reductive sensibilities of the artists she selected. 

Christine:  Can you label the works in this exhibition as reductive? Post-minimalist? Abstract?

Joanne: Abstraction is our umbrella. Reductivism is for many of us both the path and the objective. As a group we do not make fussy art, although it may be referential. If by “post-minimalism" we understand that the aesthetic of the 1960s is being brought into a new century—a new millennium—with a broader sense of what’s possible in reductive work, then yes, we’re post-minimalists.

Our reductive tendencies don’t adhere rigidly to industrial coolness or the anonymity of manufacture of a previous generation. We engage color, material, layers, process. Some of our work is quite sensuous.

Christine: What are the key characteristics you see in this show?

Joanne: One thing I see is a strong optical element with the work of Mel Prest, Gilbert Hsaio and Rob de Oude. Mel and Gilbert work referentially. Mel is drawing from physical impressions and patterns of thought to create vertiginous fields. Gilbert uses geometry to create a contemplative visual experience. Both make paintings that are disorienting in the best possible way, because they allow us to fall into the work while allowing us the opportunity to step back and view the composition of a flat plane.

Mel Prest, Mirror Cycle, 36 x 36 inches, acrylic on panel, 2014

Gilbert Hsaio, Boom, 10 x 10 inches, acrylic on wood, 2010

If Mel and Gilbert pull us in, Rob de Oude keeps us teetering on the edge with his rigorous opticality. Multilayered grids formed by precisely painted lines, slightly shifted in each layer, offer entry into a complex network of shifting planes. Neither meditative not vertiginous, this work holds us in thrilling suspension—like standing at the edge of a cliff, poised to plunge but with feet still (barely) in contact with terra firma. 

Rob de Oude, Dicey Dissolve, 32 x 32 inches, oil on canvas, 2014

I’d extend the optical/spatial element to the work of Gabriele Evertz, Brent Hallard, and Edgar Diehl. With a relative economy of means these artists create works of surprising, even endless, depth. I’m looking, for instance, at the stripe used by Gabriele Evertz. She takes a band of color, varies it by width, value and intensity to create an undulating field of movement and light. Her sense of light is brilliant! This work is easel size, so it's as if we're seeing but a small portion of a much larger continuum. (And, indeed, she has created fabulously large-scale work, noted here.)

Gabriele Evertz, (A)Chromatic + Metallics (Green), 24 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas over wood

I’m looking at Brent Hallard’s division of a small field into four hues, which create a strong architectural presence--all the more powerful for the way he pulls it off in small scale. Edgar Diehl employs a shaped aluminum substrate whose visual depth is amplified by closely aligned hues that seem to create their own shadow.

 Brent Hallard, Roomy VI and Roomy IV,  both 13 x 18 inches, acrylic on canvas over wood, 2015 

Edgar Diehl, MSE II, 31.5 x 30 x 2.5 inches, acrylic on formed aluminum, 2011

I’m taken with the spatial and chromatic relationships that my work shares with Brent Hallard’s. While he is consciously manipulating the perception of space—or the ambiguity of space on a flat plane—I surprised myself with the sense of figure/ground, or foreground/distance in my own paintings. I’m a formalist. I was thinking strictly about the relationship of color to shape, but in dividing the field horizontally—and I did that to increase the color/shape possibilities--I created a de facto horizon line. 

Joanne Mattera, Chromatic Geometry 23, 12 x 12 inches, encaustic on birch panel, 2014

Minimalist purity is most strongly embodied by the work of Debra Ramsay and Kevin Finklea. Theirs is “simple” work until you see the complexity of their respective undertakings: Nothing is left to chance: the relation of a figure to its edge, of one edge to another, of the material selected to carry the line or form. Everything matters. 

Debra Ramsay, Two Equal Lovers #6, 9 x 12 inches, ink on Dura-Lar, 2013

Kevin Finklea, It’s My Idea of Love #1, Ocean Park, Santa Monica, 37 x 47 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2005

Debra affects the most extreme balance between concept and material, employing mathematical logic as a guide, and choosing specific materials for the way they suggest light, line or form.

Debra amplified my ideas with this comment: "
I was touched by Christine’s sharing of the collector’s comment about my work capturing air. I love the simplicity in this thought. I am interested in making work that uses a material in its most unadulterated form and having my hand intercede in the slightest way possible to effect a change. In the Two Equal Lovers series I am relying on light and shadow to play on the cut and folded surface of the Dura-Lar. Dura-Lar is an archival, paper-like material that consists of polyester resin. It is my hope that when the viewer reacts with my work, the spareness of it allows room for contemplation, that it might give back to the viewer something they knew but perhaps have forgotten."

Kevin allows chance into the process. I love what he says in an online interview with Brent Hallard: “We can and must allow moments of understanding to enter into our studio practice. I don’t believe interesting work is the result of purely rational processes. There has to be both the haptic and the haphazard entering into the work.”

I’d also like to comment on the conceptual pairing of  Enrico Gomez and Gracia Khouw. Both artists draw from the geometry of written language. What I've learned from reading about Enrico's work is that he draws from a diversity of his sources, both political and cultural: calligraphy; sacred texts; Latino and Queer culture; as well as the headlines in our newspapers. But I’m struck by the way he transcends his source material to create geometric abstractions that hint at a meaning just beyond our comprehension. 

Enrico Gomez, Cardinal No, 18 x 18 inches, mixed media on stretched paper, 2015

Gracia Khouw, Closed Circuit Series CC4, 29 x 29 inches, acrylic on dibond, 2014

Christine: How do you evaluate the works on view today in terms of what is happening here in the United States and outside?  

Joanne: I spend a week in Miami during the art fairs in December and see a world’s worth of art in a relatively short time.  Everything is on exhibition—big and small; painting and sculpture, representational and non objective; abstraction of every sort. Materiality is much in evidence: wood, wax, glue, fabric, foam, stuff of all kinds. Not all of the work is particularly well made, and as I look at it, I find myself wondering if its casual construction is truly intentional of if the artist just didn’t know how to put it together. There often seems to be a lot in the way of Not Ready for Prime Time players on exhibition at those fairs. Of course there’s also some wonderful work—well conceived, supremely well made, with a maturity of thought and construction that comes from years of studio practice. 

And that’s what I see in this exhibition: a deep and passionate engagement with ideas and materials, developed by longtime artists with a mature sensibility informed by commitment and experience.

Postscript:  As often happens when trying to squeeze a lot of information into a short presentation, my comments about Steven Baris's work remained unsaid. (Apologies, S.B.!) One of the great things about the reprise of my comments here in written form is that I get to include what I'd unintentionally omitted.

In his large and small canvases, Steven is employing forms taken from observation--in this instance, the big-box stores and distribution centers that cluster in the industrial parks of exurbia. He shows them orthographically or from overhead, distorting them compositionally. Clearly his work shares spatial concerns with so many of the artists in the exhibition. As an aside, I'd note that he handles yellow green like no one else. If this were Renaissance Siena, he'd be known as the Master of Chartreuse. 

Steven Baris, Drift E2, 48 x 48 inches, oil on canvas, 2015

Territory of Abstraction is at Pentimenti Gallery through April 4. There will be two First Friday events: March 6 and April 3, when Old City galleries open their doors in the evening.