Art review: There’s a lot to read between the lines at the Rockland exhibition
The line is arguably the most fundamental tool in art, the cornerstone of drawing and painting, and an indispensable device for conveying perspective, depth, and dimension. Abstract expressionism is a possible exception, although even some of this depends on the line for its rhythm and energy (see Jackson Pollock). Paul Klee said: “A line is a point that has wandered. And oh, what varied paths the line travels in “Walk the Line,” through May 8 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland.
The eight artists whose work is on display span a variety of media, including assemblage, artist books, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and textiles. However, regardless of the medium in which they work, the line – expressed as a mark moving from point to point or as a means of defining geometric shapes – is of primary concern.
The show begins with sublimely serene works by Los Angeles-based John Houck, whose connection to Maine is the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, where he spent part of 2008. When I say sublime, I mean that They are incredibly delicate and beautiful, with colors that seem to instantly calm your mind.
However, you might be surprised that the more you look at Houck’s pieces, the more confusing they seem and the more they disturb your sense of serenity. The only thing you can be sure of is that these are archival pigment prints that Houck crumpled up once before framing them. Sounds simple, right? Not at all. Houck paints geometric compositions then photographs them before crumpling the print. Still think it’s simple?
Consider “Accumulator #34.2, 3 colors each #009AB2, #F7BA9E, #F86367” (the numbers refer to the specific Hex colors it uses). Is the image we are looking at just a wrinkled photo of a painting? Or did Houck start by constructing a collage of crumpled papers that cast the shadows we perceive, then photograph the collage and crumple the resulting print? Are the blue tape fragments really on the surface of the print or were they elements of an original collage? If the initial work was painted, did he then apply the tape before photographing it?
You could spend hours trying to figure it out, but there’s something deeply beautiful about the way these works convey a sense of mystery and otherworldliness to Riddle-of-the-Sphinx.
Grace DeGennaro’s “Emanation” paintings (“Dusk”, “Night”, and “Dawn”) also require prolonged contemplation to be fully appreciated. They are superficially simple. In all, a white circle in the center floats within a green square which in turn floats within a blue circle. Surrounding this central element are marbled fields of shaded color signifying the different times of day in their titles: red fading to orange (“Dusk”), impenetrable black (“Night”), and yellow seeping into golden orange (“Dawn”). From each white circle radiate lines made of hand-applied dots.
But don’t be fooled. The more you look, the more you’ll notice that the lines of one work presage the washes of color in the next, effectively but subtly moving us through the daytime footage of our days. To wit: The dots in the radiating lines in “Dusk” are black and white like a starry night sky, and the yellow dots in “Night” indicate the sun emerging above the horizon in “Dawn.”
There are also other possible readings. The radiating lines superimpose the cosmic patterns and the sacred geometry of the universe. They all emanate from what could be the white void of emptiness from which all manifestation arises. They can also be mandalas whose function is to focus our attention and induce a meditative state.
Jeff Kellar is well known for his formalist geometric abstractions. It uses blocky flat lines and colors to telegraph a deceptive sense of dimensionality. All depict walls and corners in space, and it’s fascinating to see the versatility he achieves simply through the use of straight lines up and down or diagonally across the canvases. It is also surprising to feel the feeling of confinement inspired in particular by the murals. There is no passage through these walls; the spectator must go around them to resume the directional movement.
Jennie C. Jones primarily deploys vertical lines of varying lengths and spacings to create graphic “scores.” Using collages, acrylics and ink on paper, they seem to trace, like an electrocardiogram impression or the sound rhythms followed by an LED screen on your stereo, the pulsations, rhythms and syncopations of the jazz and other black musical forms.
It should be noted that it is rare to find a woman, let alone a woman of color, working in a cool, minimalist trend of geometric abstraction dominated by white men. His “Score for Sustained Blackness” is therefore a kind of revolutionary act that upends our assumptions about who does this kind of work and what is the meaning, if any, of the nickname “Black art”.
Not all lines in the show are drawn or painted. Philippine-born artist Paolo Arao makes sewn fabric “paintings” from scrap textiles and hand-dyed materials. They are, of course, all about geometry and line – thick rectangular swatches, thinner strips, square and triangular cuts, etc.
But more subliminally, they explore ideas of queerness. Geometric abstraction is, in its broadest sense, a genre that emphasizes control, rigor, and formal structure. It is mathematical and intellectual. By using fabric instead of pencils or paint, Arao softens this rigidity and constriction and challenges the meaning of “straight”, both literally and in terms of sexuality.
Of course, the explosion of color acknowledges the rich diversity of human experience. Arao also said her work referenced the textile arts of the Philippines and African-American quilting. Yet, even though he was only a child when the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project started in 1985 (he was born in 1977), Arao surely also alludes – particularly in “Evolving Quilt Project” – to the tapestry of 54 tons displaying nearly 50,000 signs commemorating the death toll from another pandemic that many only dimly remember today.
Will Sears’ works depict the line using narrow strips cut from weathered signs (he was a sign painter for years and is still in love with the form), which he alternates with smooth strips of wood pure and brilliant color. These assemblages are painstakingly precise, but the peeling paint segments give them an intriguing folk art quality that makes them instantly accessible. They are painstakingly and meticulously assembled in a labor-intensive process that produces a myriad of effects.
“Canopy I” and “Canopy II” have a strong sense of dimension that comes both from their shapes and from the use of a fluorescent red line that makes them appear like two-dimensional neon signs advertising a motel or a roadside bar. He also said they contain “hidden codes of life”, possibly some of the same codes and systems that Arao tries to disrupt in his fabric paintings.
For his “Convergence Series”, Clint Fulkerson makes colorful drawings with wavy lines using vector graphics software to reproduce the rhythms of nature. “Convergence Series 4 #3” feels like a dizzying vortex pulling you in. “Convergence Series 8 #6” looks like waves in a magnetic field.
Finally, don’t leave without leafing through Paula McCartney’s artist books. My favorite: the one that shows luminous patterns on a wall that she reproduces in white ceramic. The unglazed black stoneware pieces on the table are more obviously linked to the line. Yet the poetry of giving shape to something as ephemeral as light is an unexpected coda of the show.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]