Despite the obviously punning reference in its title, a first glance around Driven to Abstraction suggests a third layer of meaning: the impact of the open road on art. Here are three prominent canvases by Jean Arnold, her familiar perspective from her mobile studio—a public bus—condensing transport into a constellation of distilled impressions. Among what surrounds them, prolific inventions typify the way geometry can invoke urban landscapes. Then there’s the tendency of post-Cubist paintings and sculptures to put motion and change ahead of permanence. Or maybe the suggestion of a road trip is always there in the gallery, lying just below the sensual threshold as viewers travel in sequence past artworks resembling so many windshield vistas, billboards, and buildings.
Art has a way of turning put-downs into boasts. “Impression,” not careful study, and “Fauve,” a wild animal, are familiar examples. It was Matisse who called Braque’s inventions “little cubes.” Or there’s the film in which Jackson Pollock demonstrates his drip painting technique and then, after a dealer has chosen which works to buy, throws those that didn’t sell into the sea outside his studio. One canard about abstract paintings—that you can’t even tell which side goes up—motivates a couple of painters here. Of course many artists, including some representational ones, hold as an article of faith that a good composition should work as well upside-down, but Andrew Arthur and Chris Trueman make good on the theory by producing works that exhibitors may hang however they prefer. Arthur’s large, square canvas includes a small number and letter that viewers may choose to show as a mysterious code or as pure shapes. On another hand, Trueman’s ambivalence to orientation is arguably part of his universalist project: abstraction has spawned numerous local schools, hot and cool, geometric and organic, deep and flat, the outdated sectarian origins of and rigid distinctions between which he strives to dissolve into a grand, all-inclusive way of painting. Consequently, he’s brought a number of delicious flavors of eye candy back and set them up in animated conversation. Seeing the meticulously cool, masked and layered, spray-painted grid of “BC” cut diagonally by a jagged assortment of expressive brushstrokes, from which drips and rivulets, powered by gravity, run in all four directions at once, is one way to reconnect with the pure joy of color applied on two dimensions that the mind multiplies into three—or is it four?
Twenty-first century sculpture seems to take its cue from Man Ray: each time out, the artist must strive to completely reinvent the art. Given the overwhelming range of the results, the work of Fred Hunger, who appears to work within a tradition that developed organically over several decades through the sequential curiosity of apparently like-minded sculptors, feels a bit conventional. However, the paternity of these brightly powder-coated steel boxes belongs to a comparatively brutal tradition: enormous piles of industrial steel that dwarf viewers while competing with their environment. Having them scaled back to human size allows intimacy to develop, or—for those well acquainted with David Smith or Lee Kelly—they offer a chance to feel like a Titan in the gallery.
Sean Moyer’s crystalline forms also require some patience to see properly. From some points of view, their highly reflective surfaces look like conventional polished brass, in which angular surfaces reflect each other elaborately. Stare long enough, or walk around them, though, and spooky things begin to happen. What appears solid and convex suddenly melts and inverts, seeming hollow instead. Eventually, eye and mind must join forces to figure out that they are ever-so-slightly translucent. In fact, these compound rhomboids are fashioned from meticulously-joined, metallic sheets of plastic, a material that responds to ambient light in both conventional and unexpected ways.
Whitespace Contemporary often presents group shows, wherein they select works that display a range of approaches. Compared to Chris Trueman’s smooth surfaces, with their variously implied depth, Darrell Roberts’ thick impastos, paint taken straight from the tube and energetically-troweled, extend the work outward, into the viewer’s space. Knowing that these paintings record his response to living in Chicago makes this intrusion as logical as it is sensual, while comparing his vision to Jean Arnold’s brings forward the distinction between encountering a city from the street, as we almost always do in the West, versus the experience of Chicago, New York, or any of many Eastern (or European) cities best experienced on foot.
Something of a revelation here is Madeleine Wories, originally from the Netherlands and currently living in Southern California, hotbed of both abstraction and road art. Her four relatively small works—they average around 24” tall—demonstrate the instant gratification and total pleasure available from painting free of subject matter needing to be deciphered. Although the scale is very different, Wories’ physical gestures are as immediate as those much larger brushstrokes created by Utah treasure Hyunmee Lee: deeply felt and moving expressions that coincidentally reveal the error made by those who resist the immediate access that comes with abstraction, usually in favor of naive preference for representational images, even when what is represented needs external explanation. In ”Cascade,“ for instance, not only is the torrent that falls across the dark scene and explodes in the foreground instantly identifiable, but its weight is palpable as well. Yet even the implication that this is water is only a suggestion; the two-dimensional marks are amenable to a multitude of readings that arise in the viewer’s body as much as the mind.
Generally, we find such visual grappling with emotional content more accessible than cognitive abstractions. Nobody really likes Analytic Cubism, as national reviews of the big show going on right now in New York remind us. Yet BYU art professor Sunny Belliston Taylor can make it not only approachable, but enchanting, as she proves especially in the five “Cityscapes” shown here. These captivating miniatures, measuring about 50 square inches each, are the latest in this artist’s completely original inventions, which have included geometric fantasias in multimedia on plywood, like the pair from the “Entropic” series across the gallery that test the expressive capacity of mathematics. From these two-dimensional constructions, about as flat as paper prints, she moved to genuine assemblies, box-like works in which what had been illusions of separate elements created by color and shape became actually separate elements, joined by her craft like so many stones in a wall. Evident independence within the assembly made them rich in metaphor. In the “Cityscapes,” she forgoes fitting the parts together permanently, choosing instead to hang them in front of one another like so much theatrical scenery. Suspending them from brackets—not only functional parts of architecture, but one of the most popular ornamental accessories—completes the conceit of city as backdrop or scenic setting, even as the small parts utterly intrigue the creatively curious. Although they actually do have a proper order to the parts, the promise seems to be that here, for once, viewers can interactively challenge the artist by reconstructing the view into distance, eventually affirming she got it right.
Cute as it may be, the title Driven to Abstraction eventually reveals its flaw. Nothing forces these artists, or their appreciative audience, anywhere. These artists and their works move along paths through matters and materials inaccessible to their more literal-minded peers, and abstraction is a carrot, not a stick.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.