"Other Dimensions of Abstract Art"
at Tribes Gallery and Gallery Onetwentyeight
Jan. 8th -- Feb. 5th 2005
A group show can be the despair of a viewer who is trying to put a finger on its general impact rather than identify with particular works, especially if he or she believes, with Bachelard, in the existence of transcendent qualities. These he defines in The New Scientific Spirit as "something that is not a property of any part of the system, but which may be imputed to that system as a whole." Not every show will have this unity, but if the curators select sensitively, their tastes will imbue the collection with an overall stamp.
Such is the case with the exhibition "Other Dimensions of Abstract Art," running concurrently at Tribes Gallery and Gallery Onetwentyeight. Here is one in which a distinctive attribute, which might be missed in the examination of a single piece, becomes evident on perusal of the whole show. We can thank the curators, Kazuko Miyamoto and Rui Uchida for this. They put up the show to highlight minority abstractionists. Following a suggestion by Tribes Gallery owner Steve Cannon, the group show is being given as a counterbalance to the exhibit at the Jack Tilton/Anna Kustera Gallery, named "No Greater Love, Abstraction," which featured the work of African-American and Euro-American artists. The Tribes/Onetwentyeight show looks at the abstract work of American artists with Oriental, Hispanic and Native American backgrounds.
Both this show and Tilton's were presumably concerned with battling a prejudice against minority artists, which holds that their art is exclusively concerned with attacking discrimination and stereotypes, as Kerry James Marshall did, for instance, at his recent show at the Studio Museum of Harlem. This show documents the fact that many minority artists have concerned themselves with the creation of abstract art.
Moreover, to come to the transcendent quality on display, it would seem that Hispanic/Asian/Native American artists have a special way of doing abstraction that distinguishes their work from that of the canonical styles. I would call this mark "combustible spirituality," that is, it is otherworldly, but in a low-key, non-demonstrative way. This would separate their stances from that of the modern and postmodern masters, such as Kandinsky and Mondrian (the former) and Rothko and Kline (the latter), who imbued their work with mystical, religious or vaguely spiritual overtones so as to call attention to the profound depths and chilling power of the extra mundane. By contrast, the notatation of the spiritual by the artists in this exhibit is lighter, almost throwaway. Their god is not a stone behemoth, but a flimsy cut-out. Materially, the works in "Other Dimensions" seemed poised to take flight or be swept away, as was a sculpture strewn on the floor by Athena Robles.
This piece is carved in fine, yellow sand that lies on a white square frame. It driftworks contain lovely traces of vegetal forms that imply fronds floating in a stream. Another work with the same simple materials is comically referential to art history. "One-Eyed Jack `Spine Me'" by Gordon Sasaki consists of a mounted bicycle tire on which is pasted a red spiral made from cheap paper. Its obvious allusions are to Man Ray and Duchamp, but it eschews the brashness and iconoclasm of the earlier generation, settling for a quieter, unabrasive humor. The spiritual accent is not intrusive in either work, although Robles' piece alludes to those done by Native Americans in the Southwest to depict divine beings. Sasaki's work puns on the icons of modernism, who are seen more as spiritual valences than men.
Linked to Robles finding form in sand is a painting by Sumie Okoshi, which sees objects laced by rain. Her "Invasion" is composed using an enlarged pointillist technique. Its abstract angular forms are made up of many tiny ovoids, some of which are colored in with red or blue tones where others are left empty. When I asked Okoshi about the inspiration for her basic building blocks, the ovoids, she said she thought of them as raindrops, adding, "Rain is the most important thing in heaven, because it connects earth and sky." It seemed the rain was forming shapes in its falling sheets.
A more urban theme is struck by Ham San Son's "Reformation." This work is made up of six to eight layers of cardboard that have been pasted together, shaped, gouged, and painted with white and black acrylic to produce what might be taken for a tortured, abstract building. Indeed, Son said he drew some of his ideas from the construction sites and factories he sees in his daily commute through Queens, and which, like his "Reformation," seem "to hide something." Although the spiritual theme is muted here, the "aged" surface of the architectural inlays gives the work the feeling of a tomb, temple or some other edifice with an above average spiritual gravitas.
More overtly mystical is Noriko Wako's "Ha-Go-Ro-Mo." It takes up one corner of Tribes Gallery with long coils of rice paper, decorated with black ink swirls, that fall from the ceiling to the floor, twisting like waterfall tongues, touching viewers' feet and half burying the gallery's piano. On the wall beside the scrolls are five photographs of a nude dancer who is ritualistically entangling herself in the coils. Wako explained that she saw these hanging papers as the vestments of heavenly maidens from Japanese folklore. When the dancer moved in the robes, she was "transferred miracle things," that is, given supernatural abilities. Viewing the flowing paper through the artist's words, it is striking to see that the exalted maidens are wearing tearable, humble clothes.
Yuko Otomo also uses unprepossessing materials. Her drawings are done in modest browns and white, light hatchings that could be taken for grids found on dried, warped paper. "Kakizome #2" shows a central pillar, leaning way to the left, fuzzy with meticulous pencil strokes. Otomo traces her own lineage to a trio of great figures in early abstraction: Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, who acknowledged their own utopian qualities in their writings. She says, each one saw abstraction as "not related to the visual reality of our dimension," and in their practice, they tried "to not get anything from this reality."
Here, she is striking the dominant chord of the whole exhibition. Many practitioners say abstract art is essentially about the aesthetic values of color, design, balance, and so on, and that those who try to add a philosophical dimension to the work are making a category mistake by importing extrinsic values into the artistic realm. Yet, to my mind, positive aesthetic qualities, such as balance, are only admired because they latently imply an ethics -- the balance necessary for a good life, for instance -- and, behind this, a metaphysics. If this is so, as Otomo hints, then the transcendent quality evident in these minority artists is the connection of abstract art's general metaphysical sense to a casual, unstressed, unforced presentation, which, like Otomo's precious, nearly evanescent drawings, are hesitant and incorruptible.