Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Puzzles of Representation, Abstraction and Collaboration in Ostraff Exhibit

Joe and Melinda Ostraff, “Tide Pool #1,” Gouache, latex acrylic and ink on Yupo paper, 9 x 7 in.

There’s something unusual about the paintings of Melinda and Joe Ostraff: something that even though never seen before, seems familiar. A work like “Tide Pool #1” isn’t just a bunch of colors arranged in a balanced, dynamic composition. The parts, a folded pink veil with a hole through it, a porous sphere, and a string of something like beads, to take just the major parts, exceed what’s needed in a mere visual fantasy. They possess a quality, a presence, perhaps a conviction that calls for an explanation. In fact, they seem to represent something real, something witnessed by the work’s makers. A viewer might ask, What’s going on here? An audience member might well move in for a closer look. Then, in the work next to it, “Tide Pool #4,” the same elements appear, but shown differently and arranged another way. It’s like a view into an unfamiliar domain, where new species dwell.

Two of art’s more troublesome matters, abstraction and collaboration, are confronted head-on by the Ostraffs in their exhibition Mojo.ie, which has been occupying the Dibble space at the Phillips Gallery. This is not the two artists’ first time showing together, but in these two dozen colorful and shapely gouache, latex acrylic, and ink paintings (most on panel with a few on paper), the contrasting approaches complement each other, so that the usual push and pull of collaboration is replaced by harmony, as though they were the work of one artist, even as neither of their artistic personalities disappears into the other’s.

Installation view of “Rock Pools #4, #3, #2.” Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Few artists make a living completely from their art, and while most regard a day job as an unwelcome compromise, the right choice can help liberate, rather than restrict, self-expression. Joe Ostraff teaches art at BYU in a manner open to discussion not only of students’ works in progress, but his own and his colleagues as well, which is part of what keeps his work from settling into format. As he once told 15 Bytes, he also applies for as many competitions and residencies as he can, and what he sees as he travels for those residencies keep his vision fresh. Mojo.ie came together during such a residency with the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, at Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland.

If Joe’s work gains novelty and a sense of place from traveling, his frequent companion and current collaborator has all that and another source of inspiration, which is her work as an ethnobotanist, the material she teaches, like him, at BYU. As a scientist, Melinda Ostraff studies the traditional relationships between a population or a people and the plants they live among and use in customary ways. In the past, Melinda Ostraff has been likely to riff on observed elements of plant life, limned freely on delicately articulated fields of color. With a new location comes a range of completely new, local plant life along with variations on more universal forms. The slight, theoretical mismatch implicit in their fundamental perspectives, between a full-time artist with a mastery of technique and a scientist with the hand and eye of a skilled artist, may help explain why their collaboration has continued so long and yielded such enchanting and intriguing results.

Joe and Melinda Ostraff, “Sky #5,” Gouache, latex acrylic and ink on panel, 16 x 12 in.

In Ireland, both these individuals studied the same subjects, the categories of which became their titles: “Land,” “Sky,” “Land and Sky,” “Rock Pool,” and “Tide Pool.” Any thought that these might be poetic metaphors instead of literal enumerations should be dispelled by their opening apologia: “The bright color originates from remnants of fishing gear found on the beach.” Meanwhile, the problem with abstraction stems from widespread misunderstanding of two of its qualities: what it isn’t, and what it is. The mistaken belief that abstraction in art is the opposite of representation gives rise to the idea that any work lacking a subject is abstract, which in turn leads to the conviction that anyone can make an abstraction. “I can’t draw,” we often hear someone wail, but when was the last time someone cried, “I don’t know how to abstract?” Yet good abstraction is just as hard as good representation, because they are essentially different degrees of the same thing. All representations are abstracted — drawn from — the real world. They are removed from the totality of what our eyes have seen. And an image that emerges from the process of being abstracted looking more or less like it did in nature is realistic, while one that doesn’t closely resemble its subject, or resembles a subject not found in nature, is abstract.

Given the very real, physical nature of their chosen subjects, it follows that the various forms and textures Joe and Melinda choose behave in the resulting art just like real things might when they bump into each other. When textures meet, one of them will likely overlap the other, which behavior can be seen. Elsewhere, an opening may occur in one that another is seen within or through. A pool of water may act as a lens that distorts what lies beneath it, or it may reflect the sky, turning it opaque and replacing what is beneath with the weather. Illusions of substantial depth resist the knowledge that what we see is actually flat, but please the eye and mind with puzzles that can be sorted. These are not realistic depictions of Ireland, but they are about places one might encounter there. In fact, they’re visual intimations of Ireland’s coastal spaces, which while they resemble coastlines elsewhere, yet they have a character all their own. A tourist might feel the difference, but be unable to describe it. A scientist would almost certainly do more, but it takes an artist to reproduce the experience of residence in this finally unique place.

Installation view of Mojo.ie at Phillips’ Dibble Gallery. Image credit: Shawn Rossiter


Joe and Melinda Ostraff, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 11

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