Hypothetical Landscapes (Lattices and Grids of Abstraction)
by Greg Lindquist
Hypothetical Landscapes
May 1-31, 2009
Janet Kurnatowski Gallery (Brooklyn, NY)

What are the lattices and grids of pure abstraction, if not renderings and representations of a reduced order of nature? ...There is no escaping nature through abstraction representation, abstraction brings one closer to the physical structures within nature itself.

- Robert Smithson, “Nature and Abstraction”

Driving recently through North Carolina’s mountains with a mathematician friend, I observed breathtaking matrices of Fraser fir tree lining the hillside and pointed out to him how “Geometric” they appeared.  He laughingly replied, “Of course, they are—geometry is the study of all shapes, not just polygonal ones.”  Yet, while, in math this may be true, in painting discussing the geometric seems to carry associations of abstraction.  In humanmade and natural forms, both visual and cerebral abstractions abound.  Whether in the geometric residue of the grid or the often gestural, free-flowing vocabulary of organic forms, optic abstractions are informed by reality and, ultimately, nature.  The visual relationship of the humanmade and natural ultimately is not diametrical, as we cannot often nearly differentiate where the physical world ends and human’s intervention begins.  Smithson’s quote suggests that an abstract representation of nature not only is purer and more intrinsic than reality, but humans simply cannot make something unnatural: Anything manmade finds a structural or conceptual correlation in a natural form.

Many 20th century artists, while working in an abstract mode, found inspiration in or reference to the reality and specific elements of landscape.  Paintings in Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series reference California’s suburban geography and sense of light.  In Mark Rothko’s canvasses, brilliant color may be seen as light, where Milton Avery’s paintings hover between abstract divisions of space and representational landscape compositions.  Matta’s inscapes, composed from an iconography of consciousness, suggest deep space in an imagined, dream-like environment.  In addition, Sol LeWitt’s Serial Project sculptures demonstrate that while seeking new forms outside the Minimalist movement—something “neither geometric not organic” as Donald Judd explained—his open and closed geometric forms neatly arranged on a grid refer to an ideal order of a city, not unlike the Renaissance Utopian ideals accompanying the “discovery” of synthetic perspective.

The eight contemporary artists in the exhibition simply work in abstract models while referring to natural or manmade forms in the landscape.  While these relationships are apparent in each of the artist’s work—some appearing more conceptually supposed than visual evident—they create a hypothetical proposition between abstraction and landscape.  To order his or her pictorial reality, each artist utilizes an organizing structure—a lattice, grid, mesh or framework—from natural forms found in the landscape.  The grid, with its associations to Modernism, repetition and rigidity, appears in these artist’s works in the form of reference, appropriation, or distortion.  Also lattices by definition are more expansive than what one may know as simply a trellis or gardening support for climbing plants.  A lattice may also refer to an interlaced structure or pattern, such as a network of branches—as such plexus, it need not contain orthogonal axes like the grid.  This web-like artery or arrangement also implies formations of atoms, ions or crystalline solids in physics and chemistry.  In mathematics, a lattice denotes a partial ordered set, in which any subset has a supremum and infinum.

Darina Karpov’s intricate drawings such as Untitled IV (sudden appearances into vanishing) are lattices of anthropomorphic shapes and plexuses of flora and pastoral elements in the landscape.  Karpov’s amorous compositions dissolve and coalesce in gestures rhythms on monochromatic grounds, recalling Matta’s fantastical topographies.  Matta’s dream-like paintings also find kindred spirit in Ati Maier’s hallucinogenic painting, inspired by space exploration and travel in the American West.  Unlike Matta’s murky atmosphere though, Maier’s scale expands through graphically flat layers.  Maier’s choice of colors such as in Level Out reflects a vibrating, electric boldness that recalls the virtual landscape encountered through the window of an Internet browser.  The perspectival grid also frequently appears in Maier’s work in vanishing points, at once creating space in geometric counterpoint to her brand of fractured, gestural mesh and implying aerial photography.

Malado Baldwin’s expressionistic paintings of interlocking bands of color call to mind the framework of organic abstraction in Milton Avery’s landscapes.  Unlike Avery, Baldwin’s often fluorescent sensibility, such as in Everything Has Its Resonant Image, uses the CMYK palette characteristic of advertising.  Like Maier, Baldwin suggests a natural world co-opted by the blaring chroma of graphic design.  By contrast, Dustin Schuets’s quietly glowing hard edge paintings, inspired by the structure and interior lights from within the city skyscrapers in his studio view are redolent of Rothko’s color sensibilities.  While Schuetz’s structure may also recall LeWitt’s desire for an idealist notion of order, the subtly skewed grid in Midnight Audit functions in a similar way as Stephen Westfall’s earlier misaligned-grid paintings, where the Modernist vernacular of the grid has been distorted.  Miya Ando’s hybrid painting-sculptures on steel, not only suggest Minimalist landscape, but also appear as metallic color field paintings, calling to mind Rothko and Albers.  In Ando’s work, such as 04.09.51.38, the structure and stretcher of the cold-rolled steel painting is reciprocal to the grid.  The lightness and reflection of the steel also contradicts its material weight.

The wall relief sculptures of Don Gummer, Rebecca Smith and Suzanne Stoebe not only explore the relationship between painting and sculpture, but also the grid’s relationship to the manmade and natural, architecture and flora.  Don Gummer’s reliefs, often using metallic paint on wood, transpose the cultural constructs in architectural floor plans.  In San Ambrogio over Santa Maria della Grazie, Gummer overlays the plans of two Milanesse Renaissance churches in which the semi-circular apse of Santa Maria interrupts the Sol Lewitt-like polygonal rhythm of the rows and columns created by the floor plan in San Ambrogio.

Rebecca Smith’s wall sculptures, make of painted steel, suggest gestures of insects, maps of urban networks, and environmental/climate concerns.  In Ross Ice Shelf, like Schuetz, Smith twists, bends and distorts the ordered matrices of the Modernist grid creating her signature lattice-like networks of line, yet her sculptures, like Gummer’s, in their titles refer to geological realities.  Smith’s eponymous title refers to one of many shrinking glaciers, which have become contemporary emblems of global warming.

Suzanne Stroebe’s wall reliefs and sculptures are composed of urban found objects.  The grid is conceptually supposed as the upward reaching gravity in her freestanding sculptures that suggest the figure.  Stroeb’s work such as May I exposes the innards of these fragments—broken matrices—like Gordon Matta-Clark, but unlike his contextual displacement through only dislocation, Stroebe lovingly reconfigures these carelessly discarded objects and through their reassembly discovers new contexts.  Like Gummer’s metallic-painted wood, Smith’s oil-painted steel and Ando’s metallic-painted steel, Stroeb’s sculptures embrace material contradiction.  By painting metal screws pink, Stroeb emasculates a fastener stereotypically associated with the male-dominated construction trade by a color often considered feminine.

This group exhibition refutes William Worringer’s claim that “the specific laws of art have, in principal, nothing to do with the aesthetics of natural beauty.”  Of course, this was a quintessentially Modernist interpretation of abstraction, one detached from the trajectory of art history and a physical reality.  In response Smithson argued, “Abstraction is a representation of nature devoid of ‘realism’ based on mental or conceptual reduction.”  Smithson was interested in interstitial sites, often of construction and decay, locating the physical overlaps of the supposed natural and humanmade.  He was concerned with dissolving semantic and semiotic distinctions of human and nature.   This reinvestigation of signifier and signified is a process of discarding the name of what one sees in favor of a fuller awareness of its visual reality.  It is in these intervening spaces of definition that these artists appropriate and contemporize Modernist forms, demonstrating the connectedness of abstraction and the natural world.

© Greg Lindquist 2009