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“Collective Palimpsests” at Lichtundfire

The group show “Collective Palimpsests,” curated by gallery director Priska Juschka, is composed of the work of five artists: Augustus Goertz, Allen Hansen, William Rosen, Alan Steele, and Christopher Stout. The gallery often presents muted abstractions, and this show is not an exception. The artists included are working--to some extent, inevitably, reworking--the language of painterly abstraction, ranging from hard-edged art to freer, more expressionist versions of nonobjective painting. This point of view is, now, an outlook that might easily be seen as outmoded, but the individual works on view show us how contemporary artists can pick and choose among styles and movements, working their way through historical precedents to a present tense alive in manner and theme. “Collective Palimpsests,” the title of the show, refers to the group effort here, while a palimpsest is best described as a surface on which layers of imagery or words have been set down, on top of each other, without having been previously erased, or only partially erased, leading to visual obscurity. This, of course, refers to some of the paintings, but it can also give a nod to the collective efforts of abstract artists over time, whose art enriches the surfaces of what we currently see, even if those efforts occurred many years previously.


Interestingly, the show is accomplished enough to bring to the fore questions about the continuing vitality of an abstract style determined to remain expressionistically active. One could ask, Haven’t we had enough of this sort of fluid abstraction to become inured to its emotional claims on us? Or is it true that, even if the style is no longer dominant in contemporary art, individual practitioners such as the artists in this show will communicate an urgency of feeling and a stylistic intensity that keeps the work alive? The latter circumstances seem more accurate to me, in the sense that the paintings in the show demonstrate and incorporate an eclecticism born of historical insight and personal exploration--a well-known means of proceeding in art, but one particularly true of so established a vernacular as abstract-expressionism.

Good painting comes out of the past but is not dependent on it, being oriented toward a language that pushes ahead our creative impulse without redundancies. We may be generally aware of the impulses we see in the show, but in every artist, there is more than a modicum of independence and creativity within a familiar manner of working. Actually, a tension sets up if we look clearly at the show--a tension between old and new, restraint and feeling, even darkness and lightness of tone (many of the paintings are gray or black in color, but a few are much lighter than that).


To begin in alphabetical order: Goertz is a mature abstract painter, given to textural treatments that may, or may not, work out as visually recognizable, figurative conditions. His painting, Texture of the Universe (2019), is a black-and-white visceral treatment of a universe exploding away from its dense center lacking light. A white epicenter on the left leads to what looks like a black meteor streaking away from beneath it, followed by layers of white and black and gray. We may not be sure of the painting’s scientific accuracy, but as an impastoed, highly textured treatment of all we know in astronomy, it works. The innate drama of the history of the sky is made available to us, in ways that are memorable for their feeling and outward drive. Hansen’s Untitled 961 (2019), a painting made with oil and aluminum oxide, is a slightly Clyfford Still-like abstraction, with a white center and two stripes on the edges: on the left, a mostly black strip, ending with three organic splotches topping it; and on the right, a white strip, with a thin black stalactite hanging from above, and at the bottom a pointed excrescence moving into the white body in the painting’s center. The very bottom of the painting is rough with sketchy improvisations that undercut the linear edges of the central white mass. It is certainly a painting that has incorporated the memory of earlier art, but it is also a stand-up independent image, complete within its own means.


Rosen, an artist working with thin darkly painted strips made up of linseed oil, beeswax, and various resins, applies these materials when they are still sticky and flexible on canvas over board. The results look all the world like a mass of squid-ink spaghetti. Rosen offered Untitled #15 (2008), whose surface is dense with dark, intertwined ribbons, creating a controlled anarchy of visual information. As an example of mayhem, the painting borders on the comic--if the abstract can be relegated to the experience of the comic. But maybe what the painting most truthfully has in its exterior and process of making is the proliferation of an intuition that is more or less outside measure. The work is not large at all but fills its dimensions with truly enigmatic disarray, saved from becoming a shambles by the right-angled edges of the composition. The work by Steele, called Gateless Barrier, Distance Between Expanding Fragments (2017), consists of a delicate drawing achieved with pen and ink on museum board. It looks a lot like a vase, slightly transparent, created from small marks made with the ink. As a composition, it is gossamer in feeling, differing from the more dense examples the show offered. Its light-handedness shows how repetitive mark-making can build its own world, in which the details create a floating sensation of form. Unlike the other works, Gateless Barrier shows us how abstraction can achieve its goals through forms that are airy and light.


Stout’s work relates to the white paintings of Robert Ryman. In The Wonderment of Otherness (Work Two) (2019), we encounter a small work, made of a molded mixture of plaster over embedded and hidden shredded writing. The words originally spelled out Stout’s title, The Wonderment of Otherness; their occurrence on linen over board is partially covered with curled strokes of white. The white paint rises off in the top layer of oil paint, paint pigment and acrylic resin in irregular strips, forming an archipelago that feels as much like the surface of a relief map as it does a painting. Stout’s work offers us a truth that is partially form-based and partially thematic. All in all, this excellent show indicates how the act of recreating--a thematic palimpsestic treatment--is also an act of current creativity, made clear by the wonderful surfaces and forms in the art shown to us. Juschka is to be congratulated for her just handling of a group of artists who relate to each other in their art in interesting ways. They may be too different to accommodate their description as artists belonging collectively to a close movement, but they connect to each other sufficiently for the notion of a joint esthetic to be established. So, in the case of these artists, we experience a shared notion of what might be done with the nonobjective actions of the hand. This is beyond what we usually expect from a group show, here done with real subtlety.


Jonathan Goodman

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