At the Galleries

By Wilkin, Karen | The Hudson Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

At the Galleries


Wilkin, Karen, The Hudson Review


What do the exhibitions I've chosen to write about have in common? They all include objects made of relatively traditional materials, but it's a strikingly diverse group, ranging from quirky lifesized sculptures to meticulous pencil drawings of urban structures (and the emptiness of West Texas), from intimate little pastoral idylls to generously scaled evocations of shattered dystopias. And more. What links these disparate exhibitions is that their authors all deal in some way with perception, referring, now explicitly, now tenuously, to the visual phenomena of the world around them. They begin with their experience of place, of the vernacular, the utilitarian, or the domestic, treating their nominal subject matter with deep respect or wild abandon, filtering it through knowledge of the past, or completely reinventing it, sometimes all at the same time. These artists share, as well, faith in a work of art's power to address our intelligence and emotions through visual relationships unlike those we ordinarily encounter. That is, they share a belief in the value of the aesthetic. Once it would have been unnecessary to point this out, but in the "post-art" era that Arthur Danto, among others, suggests we live in, aesthetic and visual questions are often deemed irrelevant. "Art" - or whatever we're supposed to call it - is intended to prod us into thinking about sociological and political problems, about "issues" of identity and gender, even about "issues" of art, in just about any way but visual terms.

Having said all this, I must admit that of all the exhibitions discussed here, Larry Poons's recent small survey of paintings made between 2004 and 2009 might seem, at least at first acquaintance, to have little to do with using perception as a springboard for invention in the way that I propose unites the artists on my list; there's no question, however, about his conviction that aesthetic concerns matter immensely. The show was seen at the Esther Massry Gallery of the College of Saint Rose, in Albany. The required train ride up the Hudson, in the wake of a heavy spring snowfall, was good preparation, the whitened shoreline and uneventful expanse of the river providing striking contrast to a tightly packed panorama of riotous canvases covered with snarls of brilliant, unnamable colors. The initial effect was literally dazzling - an all-enveloping explosion of varied gestures and hues - but the personalities of individual paintings soon declared themselves, each with a different density, mood, and temperature. Large color masses swelled and pulsed. A burst of acidic green dominated one composition, big roiling loops of different greens colliding with a mass of tawny oranges, another. Dark, swooping lines threaded through patches of creamy gold and mauve, then disappeared. Scales shifted. Subtle rhythms, sometimes lyrical, sometimes syncopated, emerged. The essential all-overness of the paintings - the edge-to-edge accumulation of stuttering strokes, like a robust, handmade updating of Pollock's pours - was challenged by the multiplicity of hues. Soon we were engaged by the innumerable small incidents spread across the canvas, following them eagerly as if we were reading a thrilling wordless narrative.

What does any of this have to do with working from perception? First, Poons's unstable images probe the limits of vision itself, as Bonnard 's do, but in abstract terms. No recognizable images emerge from Poons's flickering seas of chroma; instead, swipes of color coalesce into nodes of inchoate "meaning," like overheard phrases in an unknown language, before they subside, as Bonnard's evanescent images do, into surrounding zones of broken hues. Each time these configurations bloom, they seem different, as do the larger pools of color they emerge from. Changing our distance further destabilizes these elusive paintings. Come close and they are notably physical; we lose ourselves in unpredictable gestures and marvel at the astonishing range of unrepeated hues. …

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