Savannah

Linear Abstraction at the SCAD Museum of Art

Abstraction is dead! Long live abstraction! In Linear Abstraction, the SCAD Museum of Art negotiates the status of nonrepresentational work as it exists in the 21st century and includes work in various media, including painting, sculpture, photography, and digital formats. While the exhibition seeks to trace commonalities between contemporary practices by engaging somewhat diverse uses or ideas of lines, the resulting effect points succinctly to the broader condition of 21st-century abstraction.

Phillip Stearns. Linear Abstraction, 2015; installation view. Gutstein Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

Phillip Stearns. Linear Abstraction, 2015; installation view, Gutstein Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

As its title so aptly demonstrates, the show uses the concept of the line—or more specifically, the hard-edged line—as a starting point in exploring how contemporary artists approach abstraction. Obviously, lines are omnipresent in art—in fact, it would be hard to preclude artists from being in the show if the engagement of lines were the only criteria. Visitors to this exhibition may also remember the Museum of Modern Art’s On Line, presented in late 2010 in New York. This exhibition attempted to explore the use of the line throughout modern art; in the end, predictably, artworks filled every wall of every gallery, showing the ubiquity of this most fundamental of formal devices.

Avoiding a survey-like mentality, Linear Abstraction uses the line as a lens in which to view specific works, and in turn the curators have created a show that comments not so much on the deliberate use of line, but instead on trends within contemporary abstraction. By using the word linear in the title, viewers are forced to reconcile each work with the idea of the line. Thus the curators have created an environment in which the works are meant to be read in a specific way.

Linear Abstraction, 2015; installation view. Gutstein Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

Linear Abstraction, 2015; installation view, Gutstein Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

Viewing works in these conditions often reveals multiple layers, and this is the case with Phillip Stearns’ Coplanar Nations: Israel & Palestine (2014). A digital video that could be categorized as glitch art, the work features ambiguous lines and shapes constantly and randomly shifting, with jagged, pixelated lines that pervade the entire space of the composition. As described by the artist, the work is the result of creating two polygons in the same virtual space—one shape is masked with the flag of Israel, the other with that of Palestine. Stearns then allows the polygons to rotate arbitrarily on top of each other. The visual rendering of such a procedure results in a process called z-fighting, where the computer tries to simultaneously display multiple surfaces that occupy the same space. The political overtones are immediately recognizable in such a work, mimicking the conflict between two nations over the same piece of land. Here lines are extricated from their formal use; instead, they point to geopolitical boundaries, especially those that are arbitrary and constantly evolving.

A work from Walead Beshty’s Black Curl series features lines as a vehicle for aesthetic conceptualization. Photographs created without a camera, these works are photograms that result from prearranged chance operations performed in a dark room. By using such a systematic procedure with little control over the finished image, Beshty’s works undermine the deterministic approach typical of photography as well as the innate aesthetic concerns inherent in many post-painterly abstract works from the postwar period. Like Stearns’ video, Beshty’s series of works uses a minimalist formalism to examine dominant structures within political and aesthetic spheres.

Linear Abstraction, 2015; installation view. Gutstein Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

Linear Abstraction, 2015; installation view, Gutstein Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

The other pieces in the show are not as overtly political, but they do reference specific commonalities shared by many contemporary abstract works. Once such trend is the conflation of the physical and the digital. John Houck’s works—including his Untitled #257, 614, 655 (2014)—subvert this dichotomy. For each of his works on display, he begins with a monochromatic, computer-generated field of lines printed on large-format paper. Once the work is printed, he makes a single crease at a seemingly random line through the middle of the paper. He then photographs the work from above, prints the image out, and repeats the entire process. With each cycle of its creation, the work becomes flatter, as each physical crease is transformed into a digitally printed line.

Several works in the show also demonstrate how abstraction no longer relies on media specificity, itself an interesting concept since abstraction is closely linked with the essentialism of painting. Rebecca Ward’s A (Goading) (2015) and X (Navy and Baby Blue) (both 2015) exist simultaneously as painting, sculpture, and fiber art. Michelle Grabner’s Untitled series, consisting of large-scale photographs of plaid fabric, easily connects to the lineage of post-painterly abstraction, and her silverpoint tondo Oyster 8 (2014) hangs from the ceiling on a single thread, drawing a line from the ceiling to the work. Like an Alexander Calder mobile, this hanging painting is at once sculptural and interactive, forcing viewers to navigate around it and responding to shifts in air pressure as they do.

Rana Begum. No. 529, 2015; installation view, Linear Abstraction, 2015. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

Rana Begum. No. 529, 2015; installation view, 2015. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: Marc Newton.

Finally, many of the pieces in the exhibition directly reference key works of modern abstraction. Rafael Vega’s paintings, including Untitled #9 (2014), contain violent cuts in their surfaces à la Lucio Fontana. Rana Begum’s marvelous wall installation No. 529 (2015) casts neon light—via reflection, not actual lights—onto the wall in a way reminiscent of the works of Dan Flavin. And Russell Tyler’s CPAA and TAFS (both 2014) directly conjure Josef Albers and Frank Stella, respectively, albeit painted in loose gestural brushstrokes that are antithetical to the minimalist works they reference. These citations are recognizable throughout the exhibition, and they posit a core hypothesis about contemporary abstraction: Artists are attempting to marry the lineage of formalist abstraction with the concerns of contemporary society. While the works in this exhibition vary in their approach and use of lines as a formalist element, the show’s curators have also uncovered several commonalities shared by contemporary abstraction.

Linear Abstraction is on view at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art through April 3, 2015.

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