The linear-evolution concept of art history, so popular in the 1950s and ’60s, went out the window in the 1970s and ’80s, when the modernist notion of artistic purity, refined and over-refined, simply became untenable. Postmodernist artists felt free to break the rules (especially with the introduction of new materials like plastics and fiberglass); they even felt free to look back into art history — formerly taboo — for inspiration.
Three Bay Area artists — Kerith Lisi, Brian Singer, and Hadley Williams — re-examine modernist abstract painting through a postmodernist and even conceptualist sensibility in Of Method and Material at Slate Contemporary Gallery in Oakland. They craft elegant, witty works from unusual materials — no oil paint on canvas — that look fresh and contemporary, but have a family resemblance to and could easily be exhibited along with paintings or assemblages by Mondrian, Klee, Albers, Lewitt, et al.
Kerith Lisi, who worked as a professional organizer for 15 years, was understandably amazed at the sheer amount of people’s “stuff,” to use George Carlin’s technical term, and inspired, she writes, by “the beauty of aging and wear … of old books, ephemera and found objects. … I am a little obsessive, and a lot introverted, and puzzling together collages out of found and discarded materials is how I process my thoughts.”
Her assemblages, which resemble painted geometric abstractions, are fashioned from fragments (mostly rectangular) of clothbound book covers, which she pieces together and mounts on board. The outer edges are slightly irregular, determined by the how the component parts fit together. The vibrant colors and syncopated rhythms of these modestly sized works make them inviting and ingenious homages to seeing and reading, and, in the digital age, perhaps bibliophilic nostalgia. “Mutual Embrace,” with its ‘woven’ blocks of stripes, suggests flags, and possibly greatly simplified landscapes. The paired trapezoidal forms of “Knit/Purl” suggest the corners of walls or fences, seen in perspective, while the triangular starburst forms of “Modern Dance,” which, with its illegible fragments of writing, harks back to cubist and futurist collages and paintings exalting the dynamism of modern life.
Brian Singer also makes good use of discarded books in his “Transitions” series, three 24-inch square wooden panels to which are mounted rectangular blocks of glued-together pages of old paperbacks, with their tinted green red and yellow edges (in “Transitions #4,” “…#5,” and “…#6,” respectively) facing outward. Clearly, the artist has an ironic antiquarian streak, too, as his materials must be used-bookstore finds, some of them faded by time and sunlight, and now preserved and protected with acrylic ultraviolet varnish.
Singer takes advantage of time’s depredations, however, arranging the varying shades into light-to-dark gradients; the chiaroscuro effect gives these blocks of bound text an illusion of roundness and recession that suggest both woven basketry and the gleaming, polished gun barrels that so excited Fernand Léger in his post-World War I ‘Tubist’ period. Peek around the sides of Singer’s unreadable trompe-l’oeil abstractions, however, and you can make out columns of the printed, otherwise hidden text — still illegible, of course.
Hadley Williams does not forswear traditional art materials, since she employs acrylic, gouache, and graphite on canvas and paper, but she does not restrict herself to them, adding fabric, glue, thread and tape, along with found papers. Her small works, many a foot square or only slightly larger, marry geometric abstraction, minimalism, and the craft esthetic in engagingly diverse ways.
Several pieces present grids or matrices, imply both manuscripts and digital arrays, but add an extra dimension. “012318,” for example, is an array of nine perforated disks, each of which is composed of bricklike structures drawn in graphite on off-white vintage paper that have been cut in irregular triangular segments and then wedged together, like Romanesque-arch voussoirs. “121817” presents a god’s eye-view of irregular rectangular shapes (cut from vintage paper, again) that suggest buildings separated by alleys and streets; Williams’ pierced disk appears again, however, in concentric rings of hand-drawn dots that suggest a host of interpretations. The postminimailst “Circles XVIII” is a 12-by-12-inch canvas filled with 144 hand-painted, closely spaced and closely hued target forms, rendered in pale pastels, with the variations in shape and brushstroke lending the rigid geometry air and breath, light and life. “Green Circles” features dots of velvet sewn to the linen substrate, suggesting Braille code and falling-tile games. Finally, “Cylinders” makes brazen use of pasta — fusilli segments, I believe — that old warhorse and mainstay of grade-school art projects.
Through Feb. 23, Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 12-5 p.m., Slate Contemporary Gallery, 475 25th St., Oakland, SlateArt.net