Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Between Abstraction and Representation: Namingha, Kozyrev and Denyer at Modern West

Arlo Namingha, “Clouds #5,” 2019, Indiana limestone, 18 x 10 x 6 in.

One word can make the case. For example, as a direction, west is an abstraction — that is, a thought or idea with noconcrete, physical presence. As a place, on the other hand, “the West” is one of the more common and evocative locations in space: one which provides many visual triggers for the imagination. In other words, West is both an abstraction and a representation, if not always at the same time. And so it is with abstraction and representation in art: since both take place, ultimately, in the mind, where there is yet no proof that they occur in separate parts of the brain, it’s time to end the arguments that raged for the last one hundred and fifty years over which is legitimate and which is just not art. Since they coexist and one almost never sees either in a pure form that excludes the other, perhaps it’s time to start looking at the ways they work together in today’s newest art.

As 2022 draws to a close, Modern West is showing works by the nearly 30 artists in their stable. They all could be said to demonstrate this commingling of strategies, but three call particular attention to it by how closely they approach the dividing line. The sculptures of Arlo Namingha, a citizen of the Tewa/Hopi tribe who lives in Santa Fe, belong to a school the gallery calls “reductionist.” Reduction is the process of removing and discarding whatever is not necessary, while abstraction means drawing out what is essential and discarding the rest. It’s unlikely that either term describes what goes on in Namingha’s studio, or his mind. The impact of his sculpture probably owes more to the materials he chooses, the tools he works with, and the geometric forms he imposes on them than to any cognitive process of removal. Neither do they answer to pre-existing, visible models. A more useful description was invented in the 1950s by the enormously-influential, multi-media artist Max Bill, founder of what he called the Concrete Art movement. Bill would say that by adding together found or crafted elements, Namingha assembles artworks the way sand, gravel, cement, and water are added together to make that most protean and durable material: concrete.

“Clouds #5,” the Arlo Namingha sculpture currently showing at Modern West, makes a strong, even literal case for this point of view in that it can be readily dismantled and rebuilt by anyone able to lift and rearrange its three component parts, which can be assembled separately or together in various ways. Clouds come in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, but like all natural events, that limitless variety stems from a finite number of natural laws that govern the behavior, in this case, of water vapor, ice crystals, and winds aloft. “Clouds #5” encodes those laws in the various way it uses certain characteristic tools marks, like the different saw kerfs a circular rock saw can produce. Anyone who has spent time in the desert, where cloud forms often stack to the heavens, can see how these stones capture the quality of those clouds without losing the balance between how they look and how we think of them. In other works, not seen here, laminating and interleaving rough and polished layers of stone suggest how concepts based in shared experiences, like Earth as mother, compass directions, and spiritual dimensions — esoteric as well as universal — emerge from the physical world to enrich our minds and enable the construction of a culture.

Dimitri Kozyrev, “Lost Edge 27,” 2008, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 in.

Dimitri Kozyrev explores several quite distinct subjects in his work, but the one that best demonstrate the interaction of abstraction and figuration are what might be called his urban landscapes. Here he combines components drawn from architecture, which suggest siding, railings, doorways, roofs, projecting floors, and structural masses with bits of nature like trees and perspective clues, not into identifiable landscapes but into solid-looking, illusionistic fantasies. In “Lost Edge 27,” what might appear to be a shed-like, cubical building stands behind a jumble of both manufactured and natural–looking materials that don’t all reveal themselves at the same time. Perhaps the most intriguing is the aqua-colored and brush stroke–textured area in the lower–right corner, which if contemplated reveals a white cube embedded it its maze–like, compound inner structure.

Such discoveries can be found throughout these images. Dimitri Kozyrev moves deeper into both realistic and abstract territory in the same works, without allowing either to dominate. In his statement, he says, “These pictures are not meant to be a representation of the urban landscape, they are landscapes,” by which he means that to him they are autonomous and not copies. He emphasizes the “Modernist, constructivist methods of rearranging pictorial space” that he employs, as well as the “intersection between actual, physical landscape and mental landscapes.” It remains only to say his intentions include recollecting the utter destruction of his Russian homeland by war, something America has not experienced and needs to imagine, but his technique serves him equally well when he sets out to capture the mind-altering experience of high speed driving over long distances permitted by today’s freeways.

Dimitri Kozyrev, “Zakopane,” 2009, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 in.

Alison Denyer is both an exceptional artist and a devoted teacher, two vocations that in her are inseparable. Her primary subject matter is topography: the arrangement of natural and artificial, physical features of the Earth’s surface. But within that discipline, she specifically emphasizes the distribution and behavior of water. Rivers, drainages, and lakes are things she seeks out, but water is present even when those features are not. Even when it’s not visible, the actions of water are present and unmistakeable. It is erosion, primarily by water and ice, that is responsible for most of the elaborately formed surface we live on, and the “blue marble” seen from up in space for the first time recently is matched down here by a convoluted landscape that, when not hidden under water, is likely to be covered by the foliage water makes possible. It’s up to the viewer, of course, to grasp the lesson Denyer is teaching about the extraordinarily rare compound that doesn’t just make life possible, but shapes its environment as well.

Although she doesn’t mention either abstraction or representation in her artist statement, Denyer does describe the process by which lines, utter abstractions that artists and laypersons alike will tell you cannot be found in nature, are able to divide the visual field into separate categories of visual matter, to give shape and definition to what is seen. She began with the abstractions, literally with contour lines that follow the convex edges of objects. Inverted by map-makers to follow the concave edges, which are not just abstract but imaginary, contour lines produce a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. Denyer has done many of these map-like images that, because they are hand painted with a lively line, transcend printed maps and bring the data they represent to life. The earliest known art works were scratches on bones, and we’ll never know what they meant to their cave- or savannah-dwelling makers, but even without knowing the code, our eyes read them as three-dimensional shapes.

It remained only to break the code, to tilt the abstraction and adjust the direction of view to produce a realistic image (and repeat a pivotal moment in the history of art). Denyer did this as the pandemic was approaching, and “Chasing Stansbury,” her suite of six mountain portraits, wasn’t seen widely during the shutdown that followed. Not one to waste a moment she could spend on what are enormously time-consuming works, she spent the next year painting what might today be called a “Drone’s-eye view” of Little Cottonwood Canyon and the surrounding, folded and eroded laters of ancient seafloor that eventually came to be called the Wasatch Front.

In “Geosites,” those mountains fill the painting, but their centerpiece is the creek draining the rainwater and snowmelt that continuously sculpt them. Out of the picture, but not forgotten or ignored, Little Cottonwood Creek emerges from all that limestone at the site of the granite quarry that was the source of the stone foundation of the Salt Lake Temple. Once a valuable water source for Salt Lake Valley residents, recent diversion has left the creek with little or no flow except for three spring months. To compensate, water from the Jordan River is added through a canal at Fort Union, which spoils the quality of what was pristine water and degrades the entire riparian ecosystem.

By painting the thousands of razor-thin lines that compose her landscape in white on a black background, Denyer connects her image with a host of possible associations. Up close, the lines may seem to have been machine-stitched on fabric, or drawn in pure light on a high-end computer screen. Yet reminders of her extraordinary hand are ever present. The work of art could be said to acknowledge the paradoxical fragility, and even to anticipate the eventual environmental death, of this entire region. But it’s not necessary to interpret it that way. Accustomed as we are to seeing tinted ink or paint on a luminous white background, we find her choice of media demands attention without insisting on a particular reading. They’s utterly new; we’ve never seen them like this before, and at a minimum they convey the sense that while everything that’s past may have served as prologue, all that is now over and an entirely new age, call it the Anthropocene, the End Times, or simply the futute, but which commands our attention and committed action, has begun.

Al Denyer, “Geosites (Little-Cottonwood Canyon) 2022, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 in.

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