Dr. Grant Vetter
Reprinted here from the ARTSBEACON
ON SPEAKING IN THE NAME OF MINIMALISM: A Survey of Propositions, Commitments and New Departures.
A group show of Minimalist inspired works opened at Bentley gallery this past week entitled "Minimally Speaking", which prompts the question, what does it mean to speak in the language of Minimalism today? Of course, Minimalism was originally a response to the expressive pathos of Abstract Expressionism and Clement Greenberg's defense of flatness as the teleological thrust of modern art. Minimalism traded on countering the organic unity of Ab-Ex painting with systems thinking, repeated geometries and what Michel Fried called 'a theatrical use of space' which sought to engage the viewer on multiple levels of experience. In other words, Minimalism often abandoned the gallery walls in order to be situated alongside the art going public, where interaction and seeing objects in the round involved a more varied, and perhaps, more cerebral engagement on the part of the viewer. By contrast with New York Minimalism, which was austere and often relied on primary colors and forms, California Minimalism was decidedly slicker, more opulent and not as suspicious of pleasure or a mixed pallet. So what does this mean for how we think about the works in "Minimally Speaking", which are situated somewhere between these two schools of thought, both geographically and aesthetically.
Of course, the first thing we notice is that the works in "Minimally Speaking" have a dryer consistency with regard to the mediums employed, be they charcoal, wood, metal, etched glass, clay, fabric or felt. The second thematic tie-in is that the pieces chosen for this exhibition tend to favor, or seamlessly integrate, curvilinear forms with the rectilinear geometries of Minimalism's past. A third, and perhaps more pronounced element, is that the works in this group show don't shy away from using a punch of color or a dramatic jump in value to highlight the sculptural qualities of both surface and substrate. Lastly, the kinds of art practices that are on display in "Minimally Speaking" manage to walk a line that is irreducible to pure geometry or spontaneous improvisations. Taken together, we can say that the works in "Minimally Speaking" are very much about primary forms, but with a material, and often, a conceptual twist of sorts, that sets them well beyond the boundaries of the first few generations of Minimalist artists.
But why exactly is this case, and how can we think about it in terms of being a regional problematic, a cultural dialogue and a question about concerns in contemporary art practice? In order to show how these disparate fields of inquiry are of any special import with regard to art criticism, it is not only necessary to examine the ethos that ties an exhibition of works together formally, but also, to delve into the motivations which drive and define each artist's project in particular. Which is to say, a comparative analysis of works only takes on its full meaning in light of providing a closer reading of each individual contribution. Thus, we must attempt to better understand where each piece in the show sits with regard to the formal and cultural associations that allow any given work to find a 'voice', or a way of 'speaking', within the bounds of a historically condition iconography and its attending expectations. In this case, we are obviously talking about the idiom of Minimalism, whether adopted as a working language, or as language transformed, transmuted and sometimes, simply muted, in order to whisper to us through softer tones and gentler affects. But just how is this achieved in each artists oeuvre, and how can we characterize the nature of their varied contributions toward speaking Minimally?
Starting with Mark Pomilio's curved and collaged canvasses, which are composed with charcoal and incised with sharp geometric cuts, we find ourselves presented with a unique embrace of multiple strategies of making. Bold and stark, his paintings reveal a deft touch when approached for a more intimate viewing. But the feeling of raw charcoal dust mixed with motifs that are reminiscent of California Hard Edge painting, Art Concrete and certain moments from the history of the Pattern and Design movement, make for a uniquely hybrid aesthetic. Crisp, intellectual, and even a bit ominous at moments, Pomilio's works hold their own against the best pieces of Minimalism's past, and certainly represent a high watermark for Arizona Minimalism today.
By contrast, the wall sculptures of Peter Millett are rather inviting, warm and colorful, even though they are made of weighty materials like rough-hewn wood and industrial grade steel. Painted over with warm browns, cool whites, and rich blues set off against the pentimenti of petrified and oxidized supports, one cannot help but think about a rust aesthetic that echoes the dusty touch of some of Pomilio's pieces. In this way, we can say that there is a strong current of regionalism underlying both projects, but which is carried forward into the contemporary moment by so many subtle interventions. For instance, Millett is as apt to choose a formal name to describe his pieces, such as "S" or "Doublepoint", as he is to offset these programmatic descriptions with anthropomorphic titles like "Walking Women" or counter-culture identifications like "Hipster". There is, quite undoubtedly, a nod and wink in such gestures that doesn't miss the irony of how quickly Minimalism went from being a critical school of art production to a design aesthetic that was embraced by the general public in a shorter period of time than any other art movement in the twentieth century. In this way, we can say that Millett's works remind us that it is hip to be Minimal even while continuing to challenge our expectations about just what that means.
Equally notable as a regional aesthetic of sorts are the works of John G. Luebtow. Luebtow's "Linear Series" is composed of cool, smooth, sleek, glass sculptures, which immediately call to mind the idea of falling water in a state that is beset with similar motifs. What is especially impressive about Luebtow's works however is their sheer virtuosity, which comes from making a hard material, like glass, into a sensual series of forms whose haptic qualities are held in balance by an active dance of optical pleasures. Folded over, flopping and undulating movements, staged to perfection in their proportion and technique, Luebtow's pieces are sure to draw you in through the gentle play of light, shadow and transparency. His collaged works, like "Linear Form Wall Series-Lf-W4-91/9", are no less impressive for mixing together a myriad of materials and cultural allusions without losing any of the impact that his smaller works have in spades.
Following on the dust, rust and water motifs proffered by Pomilio, Millet and Luebtow, respectively, we move into the expanded field of Minimalist interventions with the installation works of Matt Magee. Laid on the floor and suspended in the air, "From Here to There" and "Dotted Line", are clearly works that pay homage to the impetus behind New York style Minimalism. Only with these pieces, we are treated to the use of more 'consumer friendly' materials, such as felt, twine and shredded inner-tube plastics. Of course, it goes without saying, that such materials have a regional tie-in too, and that much like the projects of other artists in the show, Magee also manages to transform his chosen materials in a way that defies being reducible to a local or minor vernacular. Instead, Magee's works perform a kind of artistic alchemy that allows them to become part of a bigger discourse about space, time, and meter. This elevation of both materials and intent is most decidedly on display in Magee's larger installation works which run in a line, which court symmetry and which play with an open-ended sense of systemicity. These qualities are only further underscored by Magee's restrained use of color, which consists of staying to a pallet of cool blacks and warm grays. It is only in Magee's "Hanger Number 7" that we find a playful departure in color and form that is no less reserved in its commitment to repurposing found materials and the motifs of modern art, albeit, with a touch of light hearted candor and frivolity.
Following Magee's pieces, we encounter the works of Stephanie Blake, which don't seem to be a part of a readily identifiable regionalist discourse, or even Minimalism with a capital M, but which are no less powerful for embracing an intuitive and largely spontaneous program of execution. Certainly, Blake's pieces are in the show for their restrained pallet, their elegant qualities, and their stunning delicacy. One gets the feeling that these comfortably scaled sculptures - which are composed of either polished steel or fired porcelain - could work at any size. This is because they are complete in their intention and refined in their aesthetic disposition. The soft qualities of fleshiness mixing with bent geometries, delicately folded into one another, is a fair characterization of Blake's modus operandi. At a purely technical level, her nuanced handling of form is a rare find in an age of industrially produced sculpture. Taken as allegories about the status of Minimalist aesthetics, her contribution is perhaps that much more incisive for opening up new avenues of exploration within a vernacular of reserve, making minimal gestures speak in a wholly other octave than what the Minimalist project has heretofore admitted.
Finally, we come to the sculptural works of Denise Yaghmourian whose pieces bring a distinct air of internationalism and even feminist critique to their take on the Minimalist aesthetic. By combining geometric forms with found materials, Yaghmourian's works point to what is decidedly outside the hermetic concerns of twentieth century Minimalism. Not afraid of using color, the brilliant shock of her glowing red pallet and the types of interventions in form and content that drive her work are sure to grab the attention of viewers straight away. The play of recognition and misrecognition in her pieces presents us with a series of dichotomies that is textual, historical, and phenomenological. In short, her pieces are a rich experience for both the eyes and the mind. Evidenced in works like "Red Cube", which is a suspended square composed of silver eyelets, black thread and red fabric stretched over a wood box, we encounter a deceptive simplicity that proves to be as much about the play of constraint and the rhetoric of display as it is about the critique of aesthetic conventions. One might even say that Yaghmourian's piece is the Minimalist version of Pandora’s box, mixing domestic labor materials with industrial bra fasteners and sinewy synthetic fabrics, all of which invite you in for a closer look while dressing up geometries in an attire that refuses to 'bare all'. Of course, this is a classical inversion of the Neo-Platonic attitude that defined Minimalism as a series of ontological commitments. As such, it appears that Yaghmourian's pandoric gesture is to have let loose 'the evils of the world' on an idiom that was formerly based on purity in line and form. Like many of the artists in the show, we find Yaghmourian making Minimalism speak in tongues, or even in tongue twisters, if not by rethinking the ideality attributed to 'primary forms', than at least by making us confront the question of 'primary motivations'.
While "Red Cube" alone is worth the drive to see the exhibition, the show itself provides an incisive commentary on what it means to "Speak Minimally" in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. In fact, we might say these works want to talk to us about art history, place and space, but with as little small talk as possible. They get right to the point in speaking with poignant gestures and eremitic designs, which are the hallmark of the Minimalist program. But it is also important to understand that they point to a multitude of other concerns as well, be they regional, theoretical or theatrical. This small group show, which is really more of a survey in brief, is richly rewarding for being both innovative and provocative. But most importantly, it is worth the trip to come investigate in person, as the works are mostly in the round, and only reveal themselves through the extended time of viewing.
Minimally Speaking is on view at Bentley Gallery from March 5th through the 31st. Works are viewable Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30am to 5:30pm and by appointment. Bentley gallery is located at 215 East Grant Street, Phoenix, Az, 85004.
Call (480) 946-6060 or visit their website at http://bentleygallery.com/ for more information.