Ignorance Becomes Visual Bliss

ArtspaceThree new art shows opened on Orange Street in the same night.

All displayed their ignorance and limitations.

That’s a compliment.

Although Reynolds Fine Art and Artspace didn’t collaborate, their new exhibitions —Allegories of the Heart and Mind, Smart Painting, and Perceptual Data —taken together provide a pleasurable walk down one of art history’s most important memory lanes: Ever since Cubism blew up the illusion of three-dimensional space on the canvas, a lot of art since has explored art’s own basic elements, limitations, and ignorance.

In fact art that is unaware of these roots and limits is often viewed as naive and the backyard domain not of pros but of Sunday painters.

What modern art is about, including Orange Street’s latest offerings, is often trying to make that ignorance into visual bliss.

That anatomy lesson into the limitations of the mind, heart, and hand of the visual artist is being offered at Reynolds in William Butcher’s quavering acrylic compositions. His show, Allegories of the Heart and Mind, runs through March 14. Artspace’s Smart Painting, the perky group show curated by John O’Donnell, and Neil Matthiessen’s computer-based installation Perceptual Data are on through March 2. All threw exhibits had opening parties on Friday night.

William Butcher’s compositions at Reynolds Fine Art aim to give visual voice to messages from a place beyond in a manner that reminds you of the Surrealists.

That place is of course ineffable and unseeable by poor human eyes, he seems to suggest. Yet the struggle of the colors and the morphing shapes to give us a glimpse provides a pleasurable trip that he shared with dozens of admirers and friends who gathered at the opening.

“There’s a sense of ideal goals [in painting].  We all know it’s a hopeless endeavor. It’s the quest toward that, to reach as high as you can, to try to understand what’s beyond words, and way beyond art,” he said.

Butcher, who has been teaching art at Suffield Academy and has shown widely in the northeast concedes the Surrealists, among others, as influences, along with Francis Bacon and Richard Diebenkorn, he said.

Then there’s also Kaballah. That’s most evident in this exhibition in the use of Hebrew letters both as words and visual elements in his “Manasseh.” Butcher doesn’t read Hebrew but he was deeply influenced by a teacher who did, Jules Kirschenbaum, his painting instructor at Drake University in Iowa.

Kirschenbaum “was taken with the notion that Kabbalah had, that it’s very difficult to give manifestation to a spiritual idea. He felt compelled to give us that,” Butcher said.

For additional agreeable struggles with giving manifestation, just walk down the street where at the Artspace main gallery curator John O’Donnell has assembled a group show, Smart Painting,  to illustrate what is an elaborate art school lesson in the anatomy of a painting.

Deploying the work of ten artists such as Tatiana Berg into three spaces, O’Donnell has illustrated what are in his view the three elements of the painting—the frame, surface, and concept or idea.

He has put the work of artists illustrating the frame in what he calls the Bone Room, those illustrating surface in his Flesh Room, and then in the biggest gallery space the concept or idea in the Brain Room.

It’s a lot of fun, and so are the intelligent and sometimes zany wall labels: “The reason for the Brain Room, if we may call it that, is to listen to the paintings. And while they reference their literalness, they also whisper to us to ‘get weird.’”

O’Donnell, a painter himself, likes casualness. That’s why he chose the ephemeral pencil to write the labels. Being casual is part of a painting being smart. The genesis of the show in fact was a computer file of paintings he noticed online, casually kept, and labeled “smart.”  He wasn’t sure what those smart qualities consisted of until he began to analyze them for the show.

They include the painting being aware of being influenced by art history, but not competing with that history, he said.

Other qualities making smartness include being “casual but precise, being fluid but not trying too hard, succeeding at creating an interesting image or process,”  as well as challenging authority while not being in your face about it.

In fact he talks about meeting a new smart painting in terms similar to meeting a new smart person he’d like to stay in touch with, a refreshing outlook.

Or, as O’Donnell put it in his remarks to the full house at the opening reception at Artspace, smart painting should be “anti-authority but not like punching a cop in the face.”

Yet there is a limitation to this exploration of limitations: An awareness of the pieces of the puzzle makes the paintings in the show - and viewer - feel smart, and who doesn’t like to feel smart! 

Still, intended or not, that doesn’t quite explain the mystery of what happens, or doesn’t happen, when the elements re-assemble themselves. Do they become a work of art of interest and integrity, or is the whole less than the sum of the smarty pants parts?

Enter the Machines
The third show, Perceptual Data, Neil Matthiessen’s computer-generated installation, explores whether a machine and an algorithm can do a better job of getting at how and why we keep struggling to represent our mysteries.

ArtspaceHis yellow and black patterns on two walls of Artspace’s far room represent a collaboration between himself and computer programs which he directs via algorithms to print out variants of an 18th century floral shape in a grid. The computer did its thing, printing out six iterations, which Matthiessen then made into stencils and layered, six of them, in black and yellow industrial paint one over the other on the walls of the space.

Is Matthiessen adding a computer path to the road work done by major Conceptual Art figures like Sol Lewitt, whose art did not require him to be there, but came with instructions which, if followed, could be executed by anyone?

Not quite. “I see it as a collaboration between the computer and me.”

Matthiessen (pictured) said that although he’s a fan of chaos theory and probability, after he sets the mathematical operations in motion, he still has decisions to make. For example, he didn’t realize until he got in the room that his two walls were not at complete right angles, but with a brick wall section intervening; his stencils could not stick to the brick. He made adjustments.

“I could put up wallpaper, [but] I like human errors that come into play,” he added.

The artists in Smart Painting include: Blake Shirley, Sharon Butler, Deborah Dancy, Zachary Keeting, Ben Piwowar, Jenn Dierdorf, Rob D. Campbell, Derek Leka, Claire grill, and Tatiana Berg.

There’s an artist talk about the shows at Artspace on March 7, beginning at 5 p.m.

Afterwards you can go back down Orange to pursue the mysteries at Reynolds Fine Art where on the same evening, you may try to outsmart your own inner Salvador Dali by participating in a round of “exquisite corpse” at their Surrealist Game Night, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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