The elusive image

Yellow Labyrinth, Anthony Dungan, acrylic on canvas

Yellow Labyrinth, Anthony Dungan, acrylic on canvas

The new show, “The Elusive Image”, at Oxford makes an amazing impression when you walk into the gallery. As I wrote before, it’s one of the most unified exhibitions I’ve ever seen there, all abstract, or at least semi-abstract, modernist work. Part of what gives the show such immediate impact is the seriousness of the intent on the part of all three artists: Bill Santelli, Anthony Dungan, and Jan Hewitt Towsley. It’s all modernist in the sense that you’ll find no hints of postmodern irony about the nature of the work itself—or the suppositions behind it. It varies between quasi-representational and almost entirely abstract, with Dungan’s powerful new nudes as the most figurative.

Towsley’s constructions, work that is woven from filaments of metal, look perfect in the company of the paintings around it, but it gets a little overshadowed. It’s quiet, glowing, subtle and, at times, intricate without being overly complicated. My favorite is a rippling curtain of metal screen that flows in waves down toward the floor, like a Chinese scroll with figure-eight curves that seem permanently pressed into the fabric. Up close, a variety of colors emerge, and, as does all of her work, it reflects light differently from different angles (something it has in common with the gold leaf areas in some of Bill Santelli’s drawings). Jim Hall, in his write-up for this show, does the best possible job of describing the strength of Towsley’s work:

A weaver may appear an odd choice to exhibit with two painters, but the compositions of Jan Hewitt Towsley more closely approximate, at times, that of a painter or draughtsman than that of a traditional weaver. Although she does weave patterns in more conventional materials, such as cotton, silk, or linen, many of Hewitt Towsley’s compositions are woven of metallic ‘thread’. Such work would have to command our admiration if only for its sheer difficulty of execution. But we might say that this artist “draws” with her loom, creating still-life compositions, landscapes, and cityscapes. The images seem to exist in a space somewhere between two and three dimensions. They announce themselves with the play of light not only upon different metals, such as brass, copper, or steel, but upon weaves of different type and density. The images are chimerical, as they emerge, change, and disappear when we move around them.

I’ve already delved into Santelli’s work in an interview posted a few days ago. It breaks down into four categories, three of them familiar to me in addition to a small series of minimalist geometric abstracts based on the dimensions of a tennis court seen from above. I’ve admired his work over the years, but in the context of the show, it came alive in a new way for me, though I’m not sure why. This time, in his larger abstracts, I was most taken with the paintings where he balances his free-form flows of color against geometric “armatures” as Jim Hall describes them on his website. The largest abstract, right at the entry, divides the canvas, with a diagonal line, between black and white, creating a clean, seemingly untouched void against which his intense, luminous color writhes and eddies into the foreground. In some places the color seems to erupt like smoke or swirling water and dissipate into the background. All of it evokes natural processes, but with an unnatural extremity of color that verges on psychological representation—evoking subjective states of mind and emotion. There’s a fractal complexity to the way his paint moves—partly on its own, partly with the guidance of his hake brush—so that the closer you get to the canvas, the more intricate the baroque swirls and pools of paint seem to be, folding and curling into themselves in smaller and smaller patterns.

Yet what has captured my imagination more and more, as I keep seeing new instances of it, are Santelli’s drawings for The Path—a painstaking series of images that seem to be nothing more than a small patch of wild grass bending over gracefully in the wind. He varies the lines and color with each drawing, though in most of their features, this work is much the same from one drawing to the next. It’s a minimalist aesthetic with surprisingly representational results. He spends months using Prismacolor pencils, carefully drawing these gently curving lines, each containing its own subtle color, so that the effect is both flat/geometric and yet also a light-filled glimpse of nature at its most restful and resilient. Everything bends, nothing breaks, as these strands of pink and green and yellow respond to a breeze, looking as if they are ready to spring upright a few seconds after you look away. Santelli’s ability to surrender to the discipline of making these images seems to invest itself in the sense of his subject’s non-resistance, as the grass arches sideways across the paper—a sort of Chinese wu-wei philosophy made visible. In both the big abstracts and The Path series, it’s all about flow.

Jim has been touting Tony Dungan’s work for a while now whenever I meander around the gallery for a look at a new group show including one of Tony’s paintings. In the past I’ve shared Jim’s admiration largely because Dungan’s compositions make it impossible to figure out exactly how he gets his effects. It’s equally impressive how he creates an abstraction that gradually reveals a subtle level of representation, usually involving  human figures. But in a group of abstract nudes on display now, Dungan has taken his work to a new plane. I couldn’t get enough of these new, posed figures. In the best example, to my mind, the woman twists her face toward the viewer and occupies the space around her the way one of Bacon’s figures do, against a flat background of nothing but paint. In what seems like a leap from what he’s been doing, he depicts his models sitting or standing against this clean background of negative space—which is something this new one has in common with Santelli’s standout abstracts in the show.

The difference from Dungan’s work from only a year ago is dramatic. The image seems built from more clearly defined areas of paint puzzled together in a dynamic way. These women beckon your eye, as nudes traditionally do—from Goya’s Maja through Manet’s Olympia, and—yet the eroticism he somehow conveys with what are little more than rough shards of paint is startling. There’s nothing naturalistic in the way he renders a body. There’s hardly a flesh tone in any of the work. Yet despite the level of abstraction, you can see with a great deal of accuracy how these women are sitting or standing, the tension or lack of it in their arms and legs, the clearly evoked outline of a shoulder or breast. And yet at first glance, you might see notice but abstract shapes. These women have mass and three-dimensional allure. You can’t fold them up along indicated lines and slip them into a suitcase, as it seems you might do with some of Picasso’s flat figures, though one woman’s face seems to hint at a profile even while looking directly your way. Not only are these images hauntingly erotic, they suggest either a Fifty Shades of Gray kinkiness, or else their subjects are on the threshold of victimization. One standing figure seems to be bound with straps, and the most evocative piece in the show, enigmatically titled Yellow Labyrinth, shows a fully-clothed woman (a nice twist) who seems to be tied to a chair, with rectangle of light instead of a mouth that might be a strap of tape. I’m not sure what it says about me that it’s my favorite painting in the show, or at least the one that drew my eye more often than any other work on view both times I paid a visit, but it’s a perfectly realized example of what Dungan can do with paint. It succeeds both as an abstract, on purely abstract terms, and yet becomes more and more realistic the longer you study it, down to the rolled up cuffs at her elbows and the cut of what could be a toreador jacket at her waist. It’s perfectly done.

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