Frank Stella wrote in the 1980s that abstract painting had gone emotionally as well as aesthetically flat, requiring a new “working space” to envelop and involve viewers, as Caravaggio’s deep, dramatic pictorial space had once gripped Baroque true believers. This seemed a complete reversal of the Greenbergian formalism embodied in Stella’s earlier stripes and arcs. It also seemed to posit a capital-intensive neo-Baroque corporate art: elaborate gewgaws spilling into lobby airspace as Tiepolo’s angels had once tumbled onto churchgoers’ heads. Furthermore, these large engineered artworks would necessitate working spaces with heavy equipment and trained workers accessible only to artists near Stella’s pay grade. Different advice was proffered by the visionary painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder: “The artist needs but a roof, a crust of bread, and his easel.” Kirk LeClaire and Barbara Holmes, showing mural-sized scratchboard arrays and architectural models fashioned from hollow-core doors, respectively, at the Oakland Museum of California’s satellite venue, Gallery 555, lend credence to Ryder’s outlook (if not necessarily his unworldly lifestyle), employing basic materials to splendid effect.
Scratchboard is illustration board or hardboard panel coated with kaolin clay and India ink; the artist removes the ink with various pointed tools, leaving incised white lines on a black background; additional textures and shapes can be inked in or scraped out. LeClaire, by mounting twelve or eighteen panels together, enlarges scratchboard to the scale of abstract expressionist painting. His high-contrast mélange of figuration and abstraction — ambiguously metamorphic flowers, pen nibs, stripes, clouds, acanthus leaves, volutes, all-seeing eyes, wings, ironwork, trees, and buildings — is both decorative (in the best sense) and visually and thematically complex, like the large-scale public works of Léger and Lichtenstein. They create a virtual pictorial space that engages the imagination — instead of assaulting the senses with cascades of machined trumpery.
Holmes examines culture through the lens of design, using here the nontraditional medium of recycled hollow-core doors. Cutting and stacking them to form models of specific buildings, she reasserts, logically and humorously, the connection between architecture and its human-scaled components or contents. Modernist slabs bereft of ornamentation, after all, resembled so many refrigerator boxes (if I’m remembering Tom Wolfe correctly), while later postmodern skyscrapers posed as gigantic temples or armoires. Holmes includes other sly jokes, installing lighting fixtures inside several pieces, and perching “After Hours III” on pilotis, the support columns that modernist architect Le Corbusier favored to lift his rational “machines for living” above the French dirt. Through November 14 at Gallery 555 (555 12th St., Oakland). Museumca.org/satelite.