Forms of Abstraction at MOCA GA

Installation view of "Abstraction Today" with mural by Alex Brewer (Hense),
Installation view with works by (l to r) Venske & Spanle (white sculpture), Caio Fonseca (small sculpture), HENSE, Bojana Ginn (back room), Phil Ralston, Thomas Prochnow (large metal sculpture) and Rocio Rodriguez.

“Abstraction Today,” on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through July 2, is an exhibition as much about the art its title suggests as about our city’s established galleries and the breadth of abstract work being shown there. Director Annette Cone-Skelton invited six of Atlanta’s veteran galleries to select artists from their own stables currently working in abstraction. This vibrant exhibition is the rich and varied result.

Each of the participating galleries — Alan Avery Art Company, Marcia Wood Gallery, Mason Fine Art, {Poem 88}, Sandler Hudson Gallery and Whitespace Gallery — had the freedom to select whom and what they wanted to show. The roughly 30 artists, local, national and international, assembled here all speak to abstraction in its many guises, revealing some of the expressions of what that means. What is striking in this show of mostly striking work is the concept of collaboration and especially how the perspective of the individual gallery is sublimated within the whole of the exhibition. Cone-Skelton’s voice manifests expertly in what she did not say. An accomplished visual artist of abstraction herself, Cone-Skelton has done a fine job with the Rubik’s Cube of a task of creating a gestalt from the multifarious grouping of work she did not curate and, to her credit, did nothing to direct (beyond certain suggestions of space limitations). What she did do is create a harmonious composition from disparate parts. Sculpture, photography, painting, video, installation all manage to exist as individual works of art as well as in relation to surrounding works, either visually or thematically, and sometimes both.

Works by Jeff Conefrey.
Works by Jeff Conefry, (l to r) Two Stripe (2014), Untitled (2015), Black Square (2014).

So what exactly is abstract art? As an adjective, abstract generally refers to that which exists as a thought or idea rather than as a concrete object, an idea or state, rather than a thing. Simply put, then, abstract art draws the idea out of the thing. It doesn’t attempt an accurate representation of a reality, but uses color, form and/or gesture to achieve its result, and though it could be based on a subject, or have no external source at all, it is not representational.

“Abstraction Today” was conceived as a companion exhibition to an upcoming survey of the late Georgia artist and master abstractionist Herb Creecy.  [“Creecy: A Survey” opens on June 29 and will be on view at MOCA GA through August 20.] There is much here that references the Georgia artist’s use of color and expressionism. (Note how the squeegee-like passages in Maggie Davis’s colorful, mostly vertically painted, Frankenthaler-esque Meterora (2015) evoke those sometimes employed by Creecy himself.)

In fact, color abounds in “Abstraction Today.” Kim Piotrowki’s Caprice (2016) and Kimber Berry’s Liquid Landscapes 628-021308 (2008) anchor the front gallery with large-scale paintings in vibrant color as does the mural by Alex Brewer (aka Hense) in the large gallery.

Works by Seana Reilly.
Works by (l to r) Seana Reilly, Pete Schulte, and Pascal Pierme.

Color is only one of the elements at play in the interconnections to be found in the composition of this exhibition. In the large gallery alone, the vibrating blue/red color combinations and expressionist marks of Brendan Carroll’s Decal 15, (2012) rhyme with the seductive cobalt of Carol John’s optical feast, Unzipped, (2015), whose organic zipperlike forms sway in syncopation with the elephant-trunk–like marble sculpture from New York/Munich sculptors Venske & Spanle, as well as with the zipper-looking vertical in Caio Fonseca’s mostly black and white turned-leg forms in the painting Fifth Street (2011), which in turn echo the mellow, warmer organic forms in French-born Pascal Pierme’s lovely Les Origines. 64  (2012) in the first gallery …  and on and on.

“Art for art’s sake” (or L’art pour l’art), an expression often used to describe (defend?) abstract art, implies the use of form for the sake of form and color for the sake of color, and delivers the idea that art’s effects should be created by that form or that color just as, for example, music is created by patterns of sound and, often equally importantly, by its absence.

“Abstraction Today” reveals the abiding relevance of color and form in today’s practice of abstraction, but also of the influence of language, science, architecture and music. Movement suggestive of a musical quality informs — or appears to inform — several of the works. Namely, Seana Reilly’s gorgeous pair of Pat Steir-like graphite “waterfalls,” Cascadence I and Cascadence II (both 2016), and Pete Schulte’s The Braid II (2015), an undulating column of graphite that resembles its near-eponymous title. Eric Mack’s musical and dizzyingly detailed SBTRT – 3466 (2015) and Phil Ralston’s jazzlike mixed-media works on panel reflect architecture’s influence.

Part of the fun to be had in looking for patterns and themes is to imagine how things might have been done differently. For example, P. Seth Thompson’s miasmic archival pigment print Terminator 2: Judgement Day (2015), hanging in the smallest of the three galleries could have been installed in the corner occupied by Lucinda Bunnen’s mysteriously beautiful, chance-influenced pigment inkjet print from her “Weathered Chromes” series and James Turrell’s trio of elliptical aquatint etchings. Pierme’s wooden forms, the ones that rhyme with Fonseca’s and share the musicality of Reilly and Schulte, would also play beautifully beside the warmth of Michi Meko’s sumptuously tactile Flood (2016), made from reclaimed wood and repurposed materials. So much to consider — and do consider it, for in doing so, the ideas of form, color, and expression spring to life in service of a deeper experience of the exhibition.

Installation shot with works by Bojana Ginn in foreground and on back wall, and Eric Mack on right wall.

From the look of things at MOCA GA, the state of abstraction today, at least as it exists in the practice of these artists from these six galleries, reflects a continued interest in the non-representational image and mark making and in the reduction of form to its components. (Atlanta perennial Rocio Rodriquez represents these ideas beautifully in her two paintings, Neither Here Nor There (2015) and Broken Square, (2016)). The least of the works in “Abstraction Today” approach the decorative and facile, and are more derivative than suggestive of either new direction or homage to the past. At its best, “Abstraction Today” shows us what the future of abstraction might look like as well. Ann Stewart pushes the limits of abstraction to ethereal effect as she continues to explore the world of 3-D printing to transform her drawings into sculpture, with an installation that delivers the dreamlike beauty of a memory of summer grass. Bojana Ginn, represented by mixed-media sculpture and a video projection (that would have been better served by separate space), explores what line can become with time, space, and materials. Jeff Conefry essentially blurs the boundary between painting and sculpture and makes us see both more clearly and, in so doing, gives us something brand new.  The stunning Dark Day, (Revelator pt.2) Pete Schulte’s best-of-show large-scale wall drawing in white, grays and black, has it all. At once equal parts impenetrable monolith of solid form and shape-shifting portal into an unknowable future, it is 100-percent seductive. 

“ Abstraction Today” stimulates an important conversation that relies as much about the work being made today as about its arbiters, in itself a worthwhile conversation. As a former director of a commercial gallery in Atlanta, Cone-Skelton understands the vital role galleries play in presenting the work of living artists. Consideration of this slice of artists selected from and represented by six established commercial galleries may tell us as much about commerce as the state of the arts. A great addition to the conversation begun in “Abstraction Today” might come from pondering the future of abstraction through a sampling of other, yet-to-be-established outlets of creative effort. But one step at a time.  The collaborative effort of “Abstraction Today” is a great start.

Donna Mintz is a visual artist who is represented by Sandler Hudson Gallery.



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