Issue 84, p65
By Tiziana Conti
I find what Arthur Danto has to say about the abstract art of the ‘90s very interesting. He proposes that there are two distinct tendencies in contemporary abstract art. The first sustains the importance of moving beyond the idea of art history as a sequence of events in time; the second instead is grounded in the very legacy that this history has expressed. The works in the latter group could be called “classical,” in the sense that they reveal an underlying interest in balance, without, however, indulging in uninflected uniformity. I would say that the work of German artist Elisabeth Vary, which explores the symmetrical relationship between the sum and its parts, can be slotted into this classical vein. Her work succeeds in establishing multiple viewpoints, which free it of any pretense to monolithic unity. It is characterized by an unstable equilibrium that highlights the intermingling of pictorial and sculptural languages through the relationship of form, color, and surface. A quality of empathy empowers the finished works, a remarkable capacity to involve the viewer in a visible object that is open to more Than one possible interpretation. Usually small-scale, Vary’s pieces are rigorously geometric; they are cubes, parallelepipeds. and polyhedrons that jut out from the wall with plastic force, as if they wanted to possess the surrounding space. At times these forms are assembled into a contiguous unit, as in Untitled (1993- 1994) in which side-by-side parallelepipeds constitute a single ‘block.” At other times they are placed at significant distances from each other, emphasizing the clarity and harmony of the forms, as in Untitled (1996). Every piece evokes the idea of a work in progress: they are part of a continual development, in semiologist Umberto Eco’s sense of the term. In fact, it strikes me that these elemental structures are the products of a dialectical process that is both physical and intellectual. It has been widely noted that in American abstract art of the ‘90s, geometry is no longer associated with stability and proportion, but rather suggests a wide range of changing meanings. As an example, one need only consider the work of Peter Halley, in which the grid is so prevalent. Halley uses the grid form to visualize a new equilibrium in art based on the pictorial transposition of highway systems, subway lines, underground pipes, or prison bars— which create a chilling effect that at times approaches the mood of science fiction. These structures provoke infinite intellectual and perceptual associations, whose common denominator can be found in the concepts of circulation and movement. In this context abstraction becomes a metaphor for ideas of mass media and urbanization, which I see as informing the works of Diana Cooper and Shirley Kaneda. Both artists are in fact very interested in technology and virtual reality. The American Cooper develops a complex language in her paintings and installations, which bear clear references to Sol LeWitt’s architectural motifs, focusing on an analysis of the third dimension. Using various materials—such as pipe cleaners, paper, magic markers, plastic, and acrylic—Cooper evokes topographical maps, electronic and computer ~circuitry, and architectural plans. A good example is Memory Loss (1998-1999): constructed from an elaborate conglomeration of diverse elements, it brings together drawing, painting, and architecture in a single wall installation. The combination of so many heterogeneous materials makes the work a kind of hybrid in which the play between fragility and solidity creates a precarious and changing sense of balance, underscoring the idea of chaos as inevitable instability. Japanese artist Shirley Kaneda, who lives and works in the United States, acknowledges that her pictorial language is drawn from another characteristic component of the post-technological era: the web site. From this font of inspiration the artist builds images that operate as products of an imagined space. The result is the coexistence of what are virtually different realities within the web site-painting, whose relative autonomies are evident in their ability to simultaneously produce visual structures that are joined into a single whole. “What I propose is a dialogue between subject and object, between thinking about painting and doing it, not as an option but rather as a dialogue that demands reinterpretation.” This declaration of intent is concretized in careful works of linguistic decontextualization, in a subtraction of elements to the point that guidelines for a pictorial language emerge, manifesting as energy fields in works such Scattered Order (1999) and Real Illusions (1999). Here shapes and signs are interwoven to create moving patterns in which it is impossible to distinguish virtual from physical dimensions. A synthesis of the two different tendencies of contemporary abstraction that I mentioned at the beginning of this article can be seen in the work of German artist Pia Fries. Her painting is “sculpted” on white wooden panels: sedimentary deposits of paint physically undermine the homogeneity of the pictorial surface. The work has a strong theatrical element (recalling bas-reliefs), which stems from the speed of its execution and its dynamic energy. It compels the viewer to move around it and paint. Understood in their proper sequence, these stages define the work’s inner rhythm and its suspension between reality and simulation. The inherent spatial clues in Fries’ painting come together with intense results; the background and the deposits of paint fuse in a profusion of color, creati~1g brilliant effects and placing centrifugal movement center stage. Her works seem to be projections of inner desire, which according to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, is the force that transforms painting into a mirror of reality.