Initial Impact: Benjamin Pritchard and the Art of Legible Shapes
Benjamin Pritchard: Wayfarer, at SFA Projects
October 3 to 28, 2018
131 Chrystie Street, between Broome and Delancey streets
New York City, sfaprojects.com
Benjamin Pritchard’s strikingly abrupt compositions remind me of a David Salle interview in which that artist explained how he used to try to pack a lot into his paintings until he realized that he just wanted them to say Yes or No. Initial impact is something that Pritchard evidently takes seriously, too.
But “Wayfarer”, his first solo show at SFA projects, reveals the elusive nature of contemporary abstraction. The modest sized paintings are hung in groups, each meant to explore a different organizing motif: parallel lines, blocks, circles, swirls, horizontal divisions, zig-zags, red. The simple geometry of these provisionally painted pictures makes them feel like signs directing viewers through the exhibition.
While most abstract painting begs the rhetorical question of whether a familiar form represents something, the language in which Pritchard paints is so distilled that my curiosity is drawn, instead, towards his initial impetus, the process by which he arrives at his legible shapes. For example, the first painting we see is a black canvas with white stripes, Zebra. The swirling ribbons of white on black could be read as a limited view of a zebra and perhaps they reference Victor Vaserely’s painting of the same title. Yet further viewing reveals a void-like space in the black behind the stripes. Perhaps this is generated by the nuance of the strokes themselves, or it could be created by the drips of white on the right side of the canvas. Perhaps this is a gritty rendering of the interior of the Guggenheim Museum.
Then there’s a grouping of four very dark paintings each comprised of blocks and columns with narrow tonal ranges and indecipherable colors. Viewing them is like peering over a dark cliff at night with ambient light playing tricks on the eyes. In my favorite painting, coincidentally titled Nighttime, the seemingly random swirls of complementary colors mimic an oil slick on asphalt.
The painting Dos Equis is a heavily built up painting that resembles two overlapping boomerangs. As is typical for Pritchard, layers range inventively from thin veils of paint to thick impasto strokes. This kind of playfulness with material recalls the painter Chris Martin, though I more closely associate his work with that of Forrest Bess for the psychological space he generates.
Fire, an explosion of gestural strokes of red with flickering accents of green in the underlying layers is another poignant painting. The buildup and tearing down of each layer is a Sisyphean feat not always obvious but coded, nonetheless, on the sides of the canvas. Rather than being about fire per se, this intense red painting is a metaphor for some kind of internal drama.
“Wayfarer” exhibits strong command of abstraction as well as an awareness of what a painting can and cannot be. It contributes to a current trend in painting that Paul Gagner calls “abstract art with quotation marks”, where materiality, symbolism, illusionistic space, and other tricks of the trade are treated as artifice to serve a greater statement. Pritchard happens to be coy with his statements so that he treats the act of painting as an act of theater. When looking at Pritchard’s work the directness of the compositions and the simplicity of the forms are a performance by which he is able to convey something deeper.