The popular understanding of abstraction starts with an idea of discernible imagery and deviates from that idea on a spectrum. On one end is traditional representational painting, say, Michaël Borremans. On the other end, one finds total concrete materiality without representation, perhaps Katy Moran. In truth, abstraction is less about rending or modeling and more about asking complex questions while simultaneously proposing an insightful and unfamiliar solution. In this manner, a deeply original, yet representational, painter, such as Borremans, is far more abstract than Katy Moran, who seems to be rendering paintings in an abstract mode rather than attempting anything unfamiliar. The concept of abstraction includes such an expansive set of possible manifestations that covering the subject without targeted specificity would be something like trying to write and essay on a topic like “science.”
The exhibition Abstract 1, at Marcia Wood Gallery through December 21, includes Kim Piotrowski (Chicago), Sydney Cohen (Oakland), Jeff Conefry (Atlanta), and Barbara Campbell Thomas (Climax, North Carolina). It is the first of a two-part series featuring eight painters. Although the works are meant to communicate as a cohesive group, Abstract 1 brings together four adept painters with widely varying interests producing work with unique qualities. Connections between them are made more difficult as the their works are hung separately, each receiving a quarter of the gallery.
The most abstract paintings are by Barbara Campbell Thomas and Jeff Conefry. Campbell Thomas combines, almost haphazardly, canvas, printed fabric, and acrylic paint in arrangements that teeter dangerously close to arts and crafts. The work lacks a clear organizing principle. No rhythm exists. The color almost works, but doesn’t. Everything is frustratingly unsatisfying, in a good way.
On the other hand, Jeff Conefry satisfies completely. His small, box-like works fetishize the materials and rituals of painting. The making of the support and surface are obsessed over. He chooses brass tacks instead of staples, linen instead of canvas. The stretchers are so thick that the sides are as important as the front. In fact, the paintings have no front; goopy bush marks appear on all sides. It’s material obsession to the exclusion of the main point.
On the other hand, Kim Piotrowski and Sydney Cohen make skillful works that are up to date but too familiar. Piotrowski tackles the problem of abstraction and figurative representation in the vein of Willem de Kooning and Cecily Brown, who toils at making marks that are both authentic and illustrative. Cohen’s paintings are also fashionably familiar. The intimacy of their creation is made manifest by the intimacy required to view these very small works. Simply, both make works in an abstract style.
The gallery itself is relatively small, so for concerns that seem both pragmatic and curatorial, most of the work in Abstract I is under 24 inches. Yes, this brings to mind contemporary critical descriptions like anti-heroic, modest, and intimate. But really, all the intrigue with small for small’s sake died off after multitudes of MFA students and upstarts made paintings rendered in the style of Thomas Noskowski, Tomma Abts, Richard Tuttle, and Bill Jenson. However, the wonderfully challenging works by Campbell Thomas and Conefry succeed as abstract art and do not merely rely on the familiar terms associated with their contemporary counterparts.
Abstract 2 opens at Marcia Wood Gallery on December 28.