Monday, March 1st, 2004

Moving Pictures: Regarding the “optical art” of Julian Stanczak and Leo Villareal

Julian Stanczak Amberoid 1976, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches Courtesy Stefan Stux Gallery, NY
Julian Stanczak Amberoid 1976, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches Courtesy Stefan Stux Gallery, NY

exhibitions considered in this essay:
Julian Stanczak: Master of Op Art: Highlights of the Past 40 Years
Stefan Stux Gallery
529 West 20th Street, 9th floor,
New York, NY 10011
February 14 to March 20, 2004

Leo Villareal: Chasing Rainbows
Sandra Gering Gallery
534 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011
February 21 to March 20, 2004

In a rare treat, New Yorkers could see two very different variants of optical art in Chelsea galleries at the same time. When we use the term “optical” we’re not just referencing the Op Art movement of the 1960’s but all art that, although initially pre-categorical and at the level of visual sensations, subsequently has the power to elicit cognitive and emotional levels of responses. These “moving pictures” pulsate with color, converting space into fields of energy. This broadened definition of optical art allows us to juxtapose a painter, Julian Stanczak, with a light sculptor, Leo Villareal. Villareal uses ensembles of LED tubes run by computers to create ever-shifting horizontal bands of color that at times are reminiscent of late works of Agnes Martin. Both exhibitions are about color, light and time. Each artist, in his own way, creates dazzling patterns of color, the old master, Stanczak (whose last solo New York show was in 1979) in paint and the rising star, Villareal (with his second solo New York show in two years) in cutting edge technology.

Both artists can be criticized as creating transitory pleasures-art that is reducible to visual tricks. But, is this fair? Isn’t it about time we reassess art based primarily on visual experiences-optical art writ broadly-in regard to its place in the history of abstraction? First, it may be argued that the best of such art, while starting out with the optical, doesn’t stay at that level of purely visual experiences. Thus, while the thrust of PostModernism is to make seeing a handmaiden of believing, for Stanczak and Villareal seeing is believing; the mind is informed by the eye.

Leo Villareal Chasing Rainbows: 2004 (detail) LEDS, circuitry. 5' x 8' x 4'  Courtesy Sandra Gering Gallery, New York
Leo Villareal Chasing Rainbows: 2004 (detail) LEDS, circuitry. 5' x 8' x 4' Courtesy Sandra Gering Gallery, New York

The reality they both offer us is constructed by the viewer out of visual evidence that prompts and sometimes compels certain interpretations-we complete incomplete forms, and in Stanczak’s case, experience illusory colors. Most importantly, these artists go beyond visual magic. They force us to amend Willoughby Sharp’s (1967) claim that kinetic art in general, and light art in particular, strives for “effect not meaning.” Meaning in the optical art of Stanczak and Villareal begins with their ability to sensitize us to the organizational processes that underlie the structure of the visual world. Each artist exploits the dynamical principle that when complexity reaches a certain level, we get “order for free”, be it the patterns that leap across space for Villareal or the bending of lines and the appearance of X-like forms for Stanczak. Viewed this way, such art belongs to a tradition in abstract art, personified by Jackson Pollock, which is concerned with making “energy visible” (Elderfield, 2001).

installation shot at Sandra Gering Gallery
installation shot at Sandra Gering Gallery

Looking at the specific works, first of Villareal and then of Stanczak, the most salient commonality is that both artists incorporate time into their art. For example, to get the full effects of Villareal’s latest installation, Chasing Rainbows, the viewer stands (or sits) in one place and looks at the three panels of the installation arranged in a “U” on three walls of the gallery (see image). About fifteen minutes are necessary for a representative sample of Villareal’s dynamic organizations to emerge. Sometimes the same image appears on the three panels-as soft monochromatic fields of alternating pink, lilac, yellow, or green reminiscent of the Flavin installations at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. At other times, the colors blend into one another like a Jeremy Blake video. Every so often, each panel has a large embedded square recalling Albers or perhaps Rothko as the color combinations of the squares and their neighbors morph before us. Occasionally, the three panels have patterns of movement reminiscent of Hans Hoffman, as several series of rectangles push and pull themselves vertically or horizontally across the field. At times, the three screens are sequential rather than simultaneous as colored rectangles chase each other around the room from panel to panel or race from floor to ceiling recalling the PacMan video game.

Julian Stanczak The Duel 1962-63 handground pigments on canvas, 54 x 79 inches Courtesy Stefan Stux Gallery, NY
Julian Stanczak The Duel 1962-63 handground pigments on canvas, 54 x 79 inches Courtesy Stefan Stux Gallery, NY

Time is also a critical condition for Stanczak’s effects to emerge, although here time is less a matter of waiting for things to happen and more a process of each person’s visual apparatus becoming attuned. Sometimes, Stanczak poses a problem analogous to trying to seeing through a fog or mist. In other more geometric works, the time involved is how long it takes and what distance is required for a color that isn’t objectively in the painting to appear to be there and then disappear for the viewer. For example, Amberoid, (1976-see image) appears to have a large yellow X which beckons the viewer to approach, but when the viewer gets too close, the yellow X suddenly disappears and what remains is only orange and green. In other works, the bending of lines, the sensations of forms rising and falling in a kind of rhythm are so immediately compelling that we need to look away to keep our balance. In the earliest work in the show, The Duel (1962-63-see image), the undulating forms appear to be coordinated, ebbing and flowing in a kind of slow dance. Despite their abstract form, Stanczak’s less geometric works never appear totally free of nature. In The Duel, for example, the lines appear hill-like or perhaps cloud-like. In other works, the very energy of nature is harnessed in the painting. Turbulent may be said to capture, in its abstract organization of swirling lines, the forces of nature gathering strength as in a tornado. Stanczak both abstracts nature and animates pure geometry to better reveal the joys of color.

A distinction made by Solomon Asch (1952) between a change in the “object of judgment and a change in the judgment of the object” captures important differences between the artists. Stanczak creates a situation where there is change in the judgment of the object, whereas Villareal creates a change in the object of judgment. For Stanczak, the painting does not, in itself, control the perceiver’s reactions. Rather, the complexity of the stimulus, including incredibly subtle changes in the gradations of color, becomes an occasion for the viewer’s optical system to go into overdrive. Stanczak’s “work” is created in the interaction between the viewer and the painting as an eliciting event. For Villareal, the patterning is more “out there”. In effect, perceptions of movement of color in Villareal involve external complexity. The computer program exploits a set of rules to create complex, self-organized patterns where bands of color appear to leap from one set of light tubes to another across time-space. This allows Villareal to shift the perceptual process from object perception to environmental perception. If one is situated along the fourth side of the gallery, ever-changing bands of color surround the person, creating a place of enchantment from which it is hard to leave.

In this new work, Villareal creates Flavins for the computer age. If Flavin’s fluorescent tubes of light hover between the momentary and the timeless, Villareal’s LED tubes hover between the momentary and the future. In Villareal, there is little rest for the weary eye; this is not a Matissian art for the tired businessman. It demands a committed perceiver to allow these patterns sufficient time to unfold into emergent patterns. The most exciting illusion of all is that this ensemble appears to be organizing itself into a superordinate entity. There is a perception that a particular pattern is not localized in one ensemble but rather belongs to the super set which is contained by the three walls of light tubes. Villareal captures processes that cut across the organic and inorganic-machines and biological life-leaving an awed spectator it its wake.

Stanczak creates a different kind of abstract art. His abstractions are more related to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie than to a rootless specific object of Judd or Flavin or Villareal. While Mondrian tried to capture the rhythms of New York City, Stanczak’s art is more concerned with the rhythms of nature, of the play of light, shape, and shadows in the natural world. Some of his most dazzling optical paintings can be seen as higher-order transformations of concrete memories of childhood scenes such as seeing an ensemble of zebras at a drinking hole in Africa. His memories of endless horizons punctuated by shifting patterns of grass became transformed into lines and forms that shimmer, and on occasion, rise up and bend the picture plane. In such work, the operations of the visual apparatus become a metaphor for the transformation of matter into energy, with the ensuing explosion occurring in our “mind’s eye.”

If Villareal’s recent work is orchestral in its creation of environments of color, Stanczak’s work is like a string quartet playing complex disciplined music. Indeed, on occasion, his paintings resemble sound waves. And then there is his amazing use of color. In certain works it is as if Albers’ (his teacher at Yale) paintings were transformed-somehow speeded up, stretched and pulled so we see Albers’ squares of color bulging and leaking light. Stanczak is giving us a new kind of cubism of light and color where the linear dances with the nonlinear. His use of simultaneous contrast is less didactic than in Albers, more filled with the flowing shapes of a world that is ever in motion. For Stanczak, the homage is to the life of the color rather than its container. Not too surprisingly, some of Stanczak’s most beautiful effects occur when one dims the lights; the magical X’s become luminescent-they shimmer as light does on water.

For both Villareal and Stanczak, visual effects are means not ends. Villareal’s subtext is making us aware of self-organized systems. The emotions we experience are those of wonder and awe as color breaks free from form. With Stanczak, optical effects are also a means-they allow us to look more closely at the processes behind nature’s illusions of light, color and movement. Stanczak and Villareal take us out of the mundane and connect us with something of the sublime. They may well provide a Luminism for the 21st century that transcends the duality between content and process, between form and energy, and between the observed and the observer.