by Daniel J Glendening
We live in a squiggly time. Neon signs have long been over, we’re living in the era of light emitting diodes and fiber optics and plasma screens. Sweeping laser arrays of light.
Highlighter is a group exhibition of painting curated by Nationale director May Juliette Barruel and Amy Bernstein, featuring work by Bernstein, James Boulton, John Brodie, Timothy Scott Dalbow, Marie Koetje, and K Scott Rawls. All the artists live and work in Portland, OR, and all the work was completed in 2011 or 2012, except James Boulton, who lives and works in Los Angeles and whose contributions to the exhibition were completed in 2008. The work leans toward abstraction, with some nods to landscape, architecture, and still life.
Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see, but in its abstraction, Highlighter seems to carry hidden fires, hidden smoke, a hidden collapse of surface and object, plane and light.
Highlighter carries out a conversation about space: exploded space, collapsed space, layered space.
Boulton and Brodie manipulate the relationship between background and foreground. Brodie’s Faces/City superimposes two three by six grids of square color swatches over a recessed background. While the foreground grids rest comfortably on a single flat plane, the background exists in a distant space: brushy, grayed out bands of color like a muddy, foggy, drippy laser light show. Ikebana with Afghan pushes this juxtaposition further, smashing a flattened abstracted still life sidelong into an atmospheric, borderless space. Boulton stacks his layers, Quetzecoatl on Ice flattening its fore-, mid- and backgrounds into something recalling, for some reason, a painterly take on that old 8-bit game Kirby’s Dream Land. Los Chinches, in contrast, carries a materiality, building up layers of heavy-stroke color, gray and foggy-purple in the background giving way to deep brownish greens, salmon-y orange and cloud streaked blue. In the foreground floats a white and orange shape, two conjoined rings, waiting.
K Scott Rawls’ two works, Untitled (Oases3) and Untitled (Oases4), feature a palette heavy on bubblegum and Pepto pinks, pale beige, and cobalt teal, recalling an infinitely receding hallway opening to a not-yet-rendered blue, and the interior of a wooden A-frame, respectively. Timothy Scott Dalbow presents California, shadowy silhouetted palm trees against a chunky white ground. A beachfront postcard drained of life, charred palms swaying quietly in a smoky breeze.
Bernstein’s three paintings, all untitled, feature smooth, hard, white grounds with just a hint of brush stroke: a depthless void, sparsely populated with free floating entities in the form of brushy color swatches, bent lines and loose-form geometry. These objects are suspended fairly evenly across the field of the painting, in some solution of emptiness at the edge of equilibrium. Each object carries its own identity with references to the vernacular of painting: a squishy Guston-y pink block, a square of tequila sunrise. This exploded or dispersed space is sharply juxtaposed with the densely collapsed space of Koetje’s work. Here, planes and surface pile in on one another, a cacophony of smeared gradients, loose laser-beam spray lines and jagged texture all gyrating against each other, with a healthy sense of humor. Ham Radio is nearly LOL funny, a parade of neon pink and orange squiggly lines forming a conga-line off the bottom edge of the canvas. Koetje’s is a Bladerunner space, packed full of concrete and shaky fiber-optic, reflected in a sidewalk puddle.
In many ways, it’s much easier to talk about these paintings individually than it is to talk about them as a conversation with one another. As curators of the exhibition, Barruel and Bernstein seek to “openly engage with the now,” according to the exhibition statement. Highlighter, in its six artists, is a small slice of what might define contemporaneity, but it seems not to be striving to make any such declarative statements so much as pointing to a particular set of possibilities. Space, now, takes a variety of forms, and refers not only to the physical space between objects but also to the nearly unfathomably minute space between molecules, the ever-expanding space between stars, and the space between digital data streams that can only, in most minds, be described through metaphor. How we move through the world is no longer just a matter of navigating our physical bodies but a matter as well of navigating these digital pathways. We can imagine that space in any one of the paintings on display in Highlighter: a receding infinite architecture, dispersed data points in equilibrium, a tangle of light and plane and surface.
A burnt out beach front, palms and ashes in the wind.