Diphthong at Shirley Fiterman Art Center, Borough of Manhattan Community College
September 29 to November 14, 2015
81 Barclay Street (between Greenwich Street and West Broadway)
New York City, 212 220 8000 ext. 3013
“Diphthong,” a group exhibition of 17 artists curated by participating artists Stephen Maine and Gelah Penn, offers an axial slice into process-oriented abstract art being made today. By focusing on work that involves procedure and improvisation, touch and distance, this show raises intruiging questions about unpredictability and intention
The artists here are performing openly, making work that materializes physically in ways that remain apparent to the viewer. This can be a kind of misdirection, with “nothing up my sleeve” yielding something surprising and mysterious.
Distant descendants of Surrealist automatism, many of the works here are made free of conscious control. All the artists — who are working in a wide range of modes — are heir to Process Art of the 1960s and 1970s and more recent conceptually oriented painting that uses process as a meditative or exploratory practice.
The works organize themselves into degrees of directness of method and feeling. And while everyone here shares a highly charged visuality, they differ in the qualities of human feeling that they embody. This sense of “the ghost in the machine” is a kind of haunting in work that has its origins in the purely concrete.
At one far end of the spectrum is work that suggests a kind of fictive “painting machine,” with the artist as the operator. In the compelling paintings of Anoka Faruqee, for instance, pigment is furrowed by a custom-made trowel into moiré patterns. The effect is to see math made material, in a system set to a default mode of repetition and obsessiveness, all the while acquiescing to the inevitable glitches that arise in production.
In a parallel register, Stephen Maine confronts us with the residue of process, a material memory. He has layered a series of off-printings from floor mats and extruded foam to create his complex painting. In high-key green and magenta, the canvas has a kind of psychedelic, ruined glamour, making a painterly virtue out of the necessity of loss. It plays with our continual impulse to find a meaningful signal in the perpetual noise.
John Zinsser’s Nebraska Night Driving is a devastating painting, achieved with six tracks of blue roughly squeegeed on black, and an errant line of paint escaping, like a wild arrhythmia. The whole effect of this work is inexplicably moving.
There are two artists in the exhibition whose process is strongly improvisational, but each with their own emotional valence. Gelah Penn’s large, wall-mounted drawing employs Yupo (a synthetic paper), lenticular plastic, acrylic paint, graphite, and monofilament with photographic imagery of installations, this last element managing to implicate the viewer in the very process of memory. Six angular sheets of translucent Yupo articulated with folds, parts of a fractured whole, each bear an eruption in plastic and paint, suggesting a series of ruptures, both physical and emotional, in the precinct of art’s formal serenity.
Also in the improvisational mode is a rather hilarious work by Denise Treizman, Who Let the Stripes Out?, that sprawls from wall to floor. With her painted ceramic elements and found materials including a duster, matting, tape, foil, and colored sand, she has made something improbable, a multi-directional sculptural party, full of color and high spirits.
Of the works that incorporate a sense of conscious making, notable are the stitched canvas paintings of Rebecca Ward, which actually entail a subtle kind of unmaking. Deconstructing areas of the canvas into the threads of its vertical warp generates a kind of scrim. The result is to have the simplified, quilt-like field dematerialize and reveal reality beyond its bounds.
For a number of the artists, their process is one of accumulation — Leslie Wayne building and then depicting glowing cairns of discarded paint, Rosemarie Fiore collaging the residue of fireworks, and Michael A. Robinson assembling an all-black installation, comprised of a desk with objects, including a laptop displaying images that are also in black.
For the three sculptors in the exhibition, process becomes an idiosyncratic method for creating expressive forms. Kara Rooney’s digital collages use images of her sculptures, which are made by casting manufactured materials into cryptic black and white fragments. Julia Klein’s five sculptural elements, wrapped and plastered, are tall, spindly presences, funky, tree-like, and somehow animated. Susan Still Scott’s sculpture in painted canvas seems to hide a human presence, like the Venus de Milo in shrouds.
The painters include Elizabeth Cooper whose flows and gestures of paint suggest emotive uprisings, and Michael Brennan with hallucinatory, icy monochromes. Jaq Chartier’s dispersions of color have the quality of scientific, photographic documentation. Carrie Yamaoka and Thomas Pihl are the most minimal of the painters here, Yamaoka with reflective fields of color on mylar, Pihl with glowing expanses of finely grained color.
Artists have a knack for taking the art in their orbit and crystallizing it into intriguing exhibitions. In curating this show, Maine and Penn have gathered work of widely divergent methods, impulses, and poetics, signaling an open-ended, generous process of looking and relating.