Modernist lines revisited

You can almost wrap your fingers around the effort put into these paintings — the artist striving toward the ideal, aching for a perfectly straight line, a flawless pool of pigment or maybe even a sense of calm with the realization that “the ideal” and “perfection” don’t necessarily exist. But the art is in the reach.

A “perfect” juxtaposition, Elaine L. Jacob Gallery’s “Painting by Design” show travels smoothly through time, from what often is considered post-painterly abstraction to a current resurgence of modernist design principles. Worth mentioning is how mentally (and physically) pleasant it is to rest winter-weary eyes on the show’s sharp, clean lines and bright color. The hues work off each other — pea greens reflecting off turquoise, pinks and browns set off by orange and taupe. “Painting by Design” is a therapeutic wash of color amid the season’s drab blah. The visuals provided are better than cold medicine on an empty stomach.

Co-curated by Wayne State University’s Peter Williams and Sandra Dupret, the assortment of beautiful, large works demonstrates an effort in itself — and clearly a sincere dedication to art education.

“Continuing in this exploration of popular design and optical implosion, the works in this exhibition seek to continue the experience of modernist tradition, and the vitality of painting, in the discourse of contemporary life and style,” Williams says.

The show succeeds in his stated goal. Perhaps the most lucid indication of his intent is the positioning of Gene Davis’ scrumptious 1965 “Boudoir Painting,” in line ahead of Dzine’s sexy 2002 “Gangster Boogie.”

In a sense, these works discard former notions of art as narrative. But, of course, copious language and interchange also exists within the employed symbols, as much as with any brand logo, e.g. Nike’s swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches.

Gene Davis’ characteristically bright, perfectly straight, vertical lines might be intended to bring a sense of clarity from the media dust that clogs our field of vision even behind shut eyelids. But the works also evoke everything from the screeching “eeiioo” of an emergency broadcast system tone to an image of what sound itself might look like — in the form of light waves captured in the bands of a rainbow — to a feeling of being trapped behind bars.

Dzine similarly paints simple, recognizable shapes, but the message received is more sensual, with colliding blue bubbles intermingling with milky curved cleavage spitting a geyser of white fizz. Also of note is how he drenches his canvases with a protective coating of thick Envirotex polish.

If the pieces in this show don’t actually date from the modernist mid- to late-1960s, they recall that period and the two decades later, like a foggy recollection of sitting in on an aunt’s living room Tupperware party. One piece recalls that product line’s toy ball, which housed plastic shapes that only fit into specific holes.

Many of Warren Insensee’s works draw to mind that Marushka screen-print that sat at the end of the hall in the collective childhood home of kids who grew up in Michigan in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s no parallel, however. Insensee’s tongue-in-cheek pieces are pared down to the barest essentials, creating meaning with the interactions between the shapes and emerging patterns. In “Tumbleweed,” he precariously places cattail-like shapes on top of each other so that if you stare too long, you might find yourself feeling a little out of balance.

Many of the artists utilize methods of paint application that stretched outside the status quo when first introduced — staining, pouring, smoothing over and almost flowing the color onto the canvas.

While much of the color and imagery presented is completely flat, a few of the artists step into the third dimension, with works that protrude from the wall. In doing so, they’re not creating a painting or a sculpture, but working with the physicality of surface and shadow.

Kimberly Squaglia interlaces drizzled lotus-like petals onto thick, rounded tiles, subtly blending yellow into green into blue. Marie Lannoo paints biological shapes onto panels and April Donovan slaps color onto slabs of birch, panel and poplar. Jeff Kellar steps away from the wall completely, constructing “Box #18,” “Box #19” and “Box #20.” While the angular pieces probably wouldn’t hold too much, they definitely suggest functionality and have a sort of View-Master look to them.

Aaron Parazette’s geometric designs provide a similar effect, suggesting some function, grip or gear chugging along. His use of flat acrylic against shiny enamel is stunning.

“Contemporary painting continues to shift between functional object and modernist discourse,” Williams says in a statement about the show. “The identities of these paintings are bound by modernist design principles, ideals in form and clarity of formalist information.”


By reducing visual stimuli to their simplest form — lines, a square, even an “empty” block of white space — a simple beauty emerges in these works.


“Painting by Design” runs until Jan. 30 at Wayne State University’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, 480 W. Hancock in Detroit. Call 313-993-7813 for more information.

Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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