Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Tabula Rasa: Don Christensen at Sideshow

Don Christensen: Digitalized at Sideshow

September 11 – October 10, 2010
319 Bedford Avenue, between south 2nd and 3rd streets
Brooklyn, (718) 486-8180

Don Christensen, Tip Top, 2009.  Oil on canvas, 55 x 76 inches.  Courtesy of Sideshow
Don Christensen, Tip Top, 2009. Oil on canvas, 55 x 76 inches. Courtesy of Sideshow

Don Christensen’s new geometric paintings at Sideshow in Brooklyn are bright.  With almost all his colors deployed at full intensity, they are even hard to look at until becoming fully acclimatized.  Within a half hour to forty-five minutes his colors simmer down and rescind the initial reaction.  Complex movement within the compositions emerges when you have endured the blast and come through to the other side.

Christensen also has a certain masculinist approach. Each painting jumps out from the wall, vying for attention, with little modulation and no nuance.  What is remarkable and mysterious about his work though, is how unencumbered it is, without baggage and/or memory, offering, essentially, a real taste of freedom.

I came back for a second look to see if my first impression would hold up through careful observation.  Can paintings truly be free of memory, free of all associations, i.e. the process of looking that inevitably leads to other artists or movements long forgotten?   How could Christensen with his geometrically-oriented pieces rooted in the kind of visual language evidenced in the earliest fragments of pottery, achieve a relatively reference-free field when that field should, by all accounts, be laden?

Christensen is no outsider unaware of what has gone before him.  He has been around New York since the early days of the No Wave era when punk bands were comprised mostly of art school graduates, and his older brother Dan, was a key figure in color field painting.  Don Christensen went to the Kansas City Art Institute for a couple of years, as well, before heading to New York to become part of the 70’s underground scene.  The tabula rasa effect in his work is well within the bounds of intention.

Don Christensen, Silver Button, 2010. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 76 x 50 inches. Courtesy of Sideshow
Don Christensen, Silver Button, 2010. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 76 x 50 inches. Courtesy of Sideshow

Silver Button, (2009) a multicolored stairway that leads into a vast silver void is paradigmatic.  Here the surface has simply been painted, the way a house painter paints a wall; yet with none of the associations or legacy of the monochrome.  This reduces painting to its most fundamental aspect.  Stools and other three dimensional objects found and built are literally installed above and to the right or left of the paintings.  Like speech bubbles in a cartoon, it is as if they are what the paintings are saying.  Painted in patterns or single colors, sometimes with drips and gloss, they set the tone for an understanding of Christensen’s work as liberated from the past.

The sense of play in Christensen’s work is contagious.  In Charlie Ringo’s Crown, (2009) a round form overlaid with spikey green shapes engaged in wacky color combinations, gives rise to the notion that it is really perfectly okay to let yourself run wild and not worry about the outcome.  Christensen makes it seem like everyone, inherently, has the ability to do so.   An experienced eye knows the “Look Ma, no hands!” effect is, in fact, hard won.

In Santa Santa, (2010) a complex of triangles runs top to bottom, dividing up the canvas through a series of diagonals.  At the same time, there are horizontal bands of alternating colors, green and yellow in the foreground and in the middleground and most prominant black, white and red.  The colors drive home the Christmas theme while the form provides a web of conflicting spatial cues.  The background triangles reach forward to touch the foreground triangles confounding the middle ground, which nonetheless holds its own in the void.   The longer you look at it the more complex and unique the geometry becomes.  It is the stand-out piece in the back room, and shows that Christensen has come no where near to exhausting the possibilities these new works open up.

Christensen’s show is refreshing in how it makes painting look fun and easy. What I felt as I was leaving the gallery is all the fun he’s had along the way.