One night a few years ago, on the way to an art opening, I panicked. If I had to face another painting of lost waif people meandering around a disheveled, semiurban landscape, I worried I’d do something drastic—maybe overeat in epic fashion, cut myself, spit on a midget—in short, some ill-advised, knee-jerk act of psuedo-rebellion that I’d surely regret by morning. Then came the sea change that acted as art-fan salvation: the tides of contemporary art took a turn back toward the abstract.
Here in Los Angeles, we’re enjoying a significant migration of artists who are pushing the limits and even the definition of abstraction in contemporary art. Some of the work has its origins in figurative imagery; others draw liberally from previous movements such as minimalism, pop art, op art, and conceptualism. Coinciding with this diversity of influences and ideas, intriguing techniques have also been initiated, revived, or refined, including the deconstruction of the canvas, the use of stencils, even the exposure of treated surfaces to heat.
Of course, the new abstraction comes saddled with some of the old concerns that weighed down earlier, similar trends, including color-field and abstract expressionism. How does one sustain working in the abstract without it eventually feeling like an exercise in cathartic wanking or formalist tinkering? Can the artist square off against the blank canvas and meaningfully hurl pigment in a way that bares one’s soul again and again, without eventually hitting a point where the action plays out like a hollow, therapeutic dance? More than one abstract expressionist (see Pollock’s The Deep or Philip Guston) was clocked scrambling back toward more tangible object-based visual sources. Not too many years later, the color-field artists woke up to discover their ministrations careening out of fashion with not only critics but soon collectors as well.
I’m sure that sooner rather than later I’ll yearn for something akin to a still life to remove the bittersweet taste of the inevitable non-representative glut. But until that time comes, let us take a moment to celebrate the innovations and sex appeal of this revival. What follows is just a taste in two dimensions, a small portal into what’s being generated in Los Angeles studios by some of the artists who are helping shape this abstract moment.
What distinguished Dianna Molzan’s first solo show last fall at Overduin & Kite from so many other first outings was that each of her eight pieces seemed to exist in its own universe. Drawing from an array of aesthetics, Molzan seems as adept at painterly abstraction as she is at stark, constructed minimalism. Molzan turns the medium into the message by slicing canvases, cutting out geometric shapes, exposing the frames, or even reversing the field so that the frame is in front and the canvas behind. These works made for an elegant and considered debut that managed the not-easy task of being notably diverse while simultaneously feeling tightly conceived. By plunging into the actual nuts and bolts and threads of her canvases and deconstructing those elements for a range of effects, Molzan’s paintings create a compelling bridge between painting and sculpture.
In her installation The Grotto at the Hammer last year, Kaari Upson continued her study of “Larry,” an evolving portrait that melds details she’s learned about the life of the man who used to live across the street from her parents’ house with her own fantasies. More than just revealing aspects of Larry, the piece showed what happens when an artist allows herself to pursue a subject with utter abandon; it is a narrative of revelation. By using the specifics of her research as a kind of performance, Upson’s original intent—“discovering Larry”—served as a catalyst to uncover what happens when one ventures to the furthest reaches of one’s objective, even risking the possibility of becoming unhinged along the way (consider Paul McCarthy’s early performance-based pieces). Adding yet another wrinkle to her work, Upson has produced a striking body of abstract pieces created by suspending meticulously prepared panels above handmade candles. Her intention is to “capture the smoke” on the surface of the pieces (Upson has also started making works with mirrored panels). The results are a gorgeous documentation of the artist’s ritual, the imagery as harsh and as toxic as it is exquisite and fragile.
By varying the thickness and texture of the canvas, the brushes, and the paint, Alex Olson creates works with a high degree of specificity. She evokes a sense of nuance on her canvases that become not only a reflection of her original intention, but also a map of her process of discovery. Olson’s paintings appear to change depending on any number of elements, such as light, time of day, and the distance from which the piece is taken in. The artist also places a premium on the careful act of mark-making. Her finished paintings are not a representation of or an allusion to something else, nor are they simply a record of an idea or a process. They are objects all their own.
Like Kaari Upson, Matthew Chambers does not work exclusively in abstraction. The sources and references for his big, sprawling paintings are vast: the punk band Crass, Dickens, fast food, the sadly departed German artist Martin Kippenberger, and much, much more. For several years now, Chambers has also been hard at work creating an extensive body of abstract pieces that he assembles using ribbons of canvas from existing paintings that he shreds. The range of color and texture is dazzling, and by recontextualizing the strips salvaged from what were once other paintings, he evokes a sense of miles traveled and past lives lived in each and every band. The singular strips imply a history that is both unique to itself and, as part of the new piece, essential to yet another visual equation. The finished works are muscular, but have a handmade quality that convey a kind of intimacy.
Tomory Dodge’s paintings have evolved rapidly since he first started showing in 2005, from lush interpreted landscapes that revealed his exceptional painterly skills to works more in the realm of pure abstraction. Given Dodge’s obvious love of paint, and the generosity and confidence with which he handles it, the viewer is compelled to scan every inch of the surface. Each burst and smear, sometimes even a tube spurt of paint, offers itself up like a tasty, oil-based morsel. Most recently, Dodge did two shows of his collages, which sometimes act as studies for larger works and other times simply are what they are. Either way, the sensuality of Dodge’s palette and the elegance of his compositions offer much to the senses.
Brendan Fowler’s most recent body of work rose from the ashes of his retirement—at least temporarily—from a significant body of performance-based musical work. By incorporating imagery from posters for canceled tours, Fowler started reclaiming his artistic identity. He then drew from other, more common visual sources—pictures of flowers, monochrome panels, even keyboards—to create the signature work of his current practice known as “crashes,” in which the artist takes several framed visual elements and creates a real-life collision. The work that results from this highly personal process feels less like an assemblage than a controlled aftermath, which, even after it’s mounted on the wall, has a formidable three-dimensional presence.
Nate Hylden typically works in series, using hand-cut stencils and often employing the surfaces of multiple pieces, one on top of the other, to create edges and angles on several of the works simultaneously. The overlap documents the link between the given works, a visual cataloging of both process and relationship. Hylden makes collages and sculpture as well, and recently he’s begun using aluminum panels. In many of these works, Hylden includes silk-screened images of canvases as a layer, then he builds subsequent layers and varies the sequence of his processes (stencils, hand-brushed areas), which add a sense of looseness and flow to the work.
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