Last week, we quietly experienced the centennial of one of the most groundbreaking events in art history: the 1913 Armory Show in New York. In addition to introducing Fauves, Cubists, and Modernists to the American consciousness, the event also sparked a fierce reaction from traditionalists, encapsulated in Julian Street’s infamous description of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”
After those heady early days, interest in abstract art, particularly in abstract painting, waxed in and out of fashion over the decades, declining precipitously after a late resurgence in the 1980s.
sewing up the sea and Gray, two exhibitions currently on display at beta pictoris gallery, are part of a rekindling culture-wide appreciation of abstract art. The former, a selection of recent works in paint by Alabama artist Clayton Colvin, is currently on display in the back room. The latter is a collection of drawings, collages, works with paint, and more in the front room from Nigerian-American artist (and former visiting critic at Yale) Odili Donald Odita.
Colvin draws the title for his exhibition from a paraphrasing of a line in magical realist author Kelly Link’s work. That association with magical realism is appropriate, he says, because of the possibilities and freedom that abstract painting provide.
Stephen King uses the term “thin places” to give a hand-waving rationale for the odd happenings in his fiction; in a more positive sense, Colvin’s paintings are like thin places for the viewer, little windows where one can look into a purer world of ideas and forms. When seen in the right frame of mind, the effect is breathtaking, and the images seem somehow realer than real life. The thick layers of paint give the impression that there are hidden possibilities lurking behind an already complex, engrossing surface.
Colvin’s background in design is evident in his exhibition, which expresses – in vivid color, careful arrangement, and lines as clean as soccer boundaries – potent ideas beyond the political shock factor that was such a key part of the Armory Show.
One of the most important themes is masculinity versus femininity, as precisely arranged lines – representative of masculine, rational order, like a latticework construction or a scaffolding – collapse into freeform, non-geometric shapes. Another key idea is the challenge of making a case for painting itself in a world where several apps can nearly replicate days or months of hard work in a few minutes.
For a genre that’s not “about” anything, there’s an internal conflict, or conversation, that’s hard to miss in Colvin’s work. Just as importantly, he has a distinct style that makes both those resonating questions and the magical realism of his work compelling.
The exhibition in the front room, Grey, sees the artist, Odili Donald Odita, play with a lot of the same ideas of freedom versus restraint. But where Colvin’s work seems to contain narratives of tension and release, Odita’s drawings revel in freedom and collapsing arbitrary boundaries.
A self-described “punk rocker,” Odita echoes rock ‘n roll in both his methods and his ideas. He’s a highly skilled illustrator, but his challenge is to create work that’s technically proficient without being show-offy. He draws inspiration from musicians like Jack White and the Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main Street, who sublimated immense talent in deceptively simple songs.
That challenge led to his career’s shift toward formalism, which you can see on the left side of the exhibit, beginning with some of his most recent works. The pure lines of color on white backgrounds echo the credits sequences of Saul Bass, the great film noir stylist, as much as they do the work of abstract artists like Piet Mondrian. The sense of playfulness and craving of freedom is awfully rock ‘n roll, too, and it’s clear from the start in the first image in the exhibition, Spaces:
Where sewing up the sea is an invitation to the viewer to participate in a dialogue of ideas and a vision of a magical possibility, Odita’s work comes from a very personal center. Imperfection, for instance, which has a single drop of red paint on white paper, has a sense of body, dimension, and dilated time in that red intruder that simply felt right to Odita. He wouldn’t be able to replicate that serendipitous feeling even if he wanted to.
Also like Colvin, Odita is also concerned with thorny ideas in addition to these emotions. Perhaps the most obvious is the continuing dialogue between the West and Africa, whose cultures have integrated in subtle, meaningful ways that neither quite fully understands. And in what is perhaps Gray’s biggest similarity to sewing up the sea, Odita is looking for a purer artistic point of view within himself to work from – a superego, perhaps – represented in Blue Prince, where he transposed a gray eye onto the forehead of a picture of Prince with characteristic mischievousness.
If abstract art has lost its potential to shock, that might mean that shock value was never much of a strength to begin with. Even for a complete layman, it’s the subtle interplay of ideas, the technical proficiency and beauty, and the sense of magical possibility at work in these two exhibitions that could make a believer out of you.
beta pictoris gallery is located at 2411 2nd Avenue N. The gallery’s hours are Wednesday-Friday, 1-4 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. sewing up the sea and Grey will run through April 19. For more information, visit betapictorisgallery.com or call (205) 413-2999.