Portland Opera Puccini

Chris Chandler at Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The large-scale geometric prints are inspired by 20th-century utopian design movements and offer viewers the chance to relish balance and formal flourish.

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Installation view of Elemental Forms by Chris Chandler. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Elemental Forms, Chris Chandler’s first solo exhibition with Elizabeth Leach Gallery, is an intuitive lesson in searching for balance. The eight large monotype relief prints are, as the exhibition’s statement explains, a “balance between formalism and improvisation[…], a delicate layering process of give and take, of knowing when to forge ahead and when to pause.” Indeed, the towering geometric compositions are a visually arresting demonstration of Chandler’s ability to juggle design constraints while at the same time finding pleasure in formalism. And in this search for balance, perhaps running undercurrent, is also the important spirit of endless possibility. 

For inspiration, Chandler often looks to the Bauhaus school and the Constructivist movement with admiration. Both approached art, design, and architecture with an emphasis on simple, harmonious geometric shapes, without excessive or elaborate flourish. And the influence (and his admiration) is obvious: Chandler’s hard-edge shapes are tightly organized within the confines of his picture planes, evoking the graphic experimentations of the early twentieth-century movements. His lexicon is succinct, direct, and doesn’t stray far from the Bauhaus or Constructivist traditions. 

Chris Chandler, AB065, 2023, monotype relief print mounted on panel. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

AB065, the only landscape-oriented print, operates almost like a key for understanding Chandler’s language of shapes: six evenly distributed gray circles, contrasting from the stark black that surrounds it, bear the ghostly imprints of the squares, circles, and triangles he employs– albeit with various cutouts and removals. Like a school lesson written on a chalkboard, AB065 reminds us of the foundational primacy of these shapes, that even the most seemingly complex and dynamic geometric forms are, really, a variation, multiplication, or manipulation of these core elements.

Even Chandler’s color selections embody the Constructivist spirit: more than half the works utilize solid black shapes accented by variances of warm grays (not at all unlike AB065), which conjures a vintage feel to the works as if they have survived the past century since the movement was introduced to the public. It’s almost uncanny: AB057, a square composition of two translucent red circles layered over a set of concentric alternating black and white squares, is dramatically similar, if not nearly identical, to the clothing designs of Varvara Stepanova, a Constructivist designer (whose husband, Aleksandr Rodchenko, was one of the founders and a leading figure of the movement) tasked with designing uniform clothing for the working people of Moscow. 

Chris Chandler, AB057, 2023, monotype relief print mounted on panel. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Yet somehow, I will admit, the exhibition as a whole felt incohesive to me. That is, a few pieces – specifically AB063 and AB062 – seemed so different from the rest of their neighboring works. At first, I couldn’t understand why or how they folded into the mix. They certainly drew upon the established shape lexicon, but their unexpected colors and compositions contrasted the industrial “graphicness” of the other works in ways that were impossible to ignore. AB063, for example, displayed completely different approaches than the others, namely in its colors. They aren’t found anywhere else in the exhibition: a pale, soft yellow; an ever-so-slightly-transparent navy-ish blue; a brushed gradient of orange to warm red. Its arrangement of circles and triangles takes a quieter approach, delicately layered to obscure their totality. I found myself less focused on what was recognizable and instead delightfully relishing in the shapes’ interactions with one another. 

After standing in the gallery for some time, I found the bright blues, yellows, and oranges of AB063, despite their relative vibrancy, to be an attractive buoy of relief in a sea of black/gray/red. It’s a funny deception of sorts, actually, as AB063 is one of the first works seen upon entering the gallery. Don’t get me wrong, it gives a striking first impression: it is warm, ethereal, and alive, with fewer immediately recognizable shape configurations and an enticing veil-like translucent layer that parts in the middle like partially-drawn curtains. But it’s just so markedly different from the rest of the body of work. It establishes an expectation that the rest of the pieces, once you turn the corner, will carry the same torch. 

Chris Chandler, AB063, 2023, monotype relief print mounted on panel. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Similarly, I found AB062 to also be attractive in its outlier status. Being one of the larger prints, AB062 is pared down and minimal. A blue (the same as in AB063) circle in the upper portion matches the width of the panel, reaching the upper and side edges of the picture plane without compromising its integrity, while five identical obtuse triangles stack below it. While the background is not empty (a close look reveals a faint grid), it is a focused use of negative space that calmly yet confidently directs attention rather than gesturing towards a lack in the composition. In other words, it is a successful, poetic “less is more” approach that contrasts the fullness of its surrounding works.

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Normally, I wouldn’t think too much about something like this. After all, outliers in a set are often the hallmark of new direction. However, the visual continuity of the other works – the in-your-face hard edges of the black circles, the dramatic swaths of red upon brushed gray backgrounds, the weighty, heavy fullness of their organization – just seemed to push AB063 and AB062 towards exile by cause of difference. But frankly, I’m not sure if, in this case, this is to be read as a misstep. 

Chris Chandler, AB062, 2023, monotype relief print mounted on panel. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

I found myself thinking about the utopian interests of Constructivism, their desire for new approaches to art and design that reflected the modern urban and vehicled the ideals of a socialist society. In my opinion, this is a demonstration of a kind of world-building, of envisioning the contours and details of new spaces. But the crucial question to ask of such a vision is: whom does that kind of utopia serve? Certainly it can’t be everyone. Although the constitutive parts of Chandler’s elemental forms are comprised of the same building blocks, AB063 is a testament to the importance of difference– that maybe difference, the predecessor of possibility, is another elemental form needed to configure new worlds. 

Take, as another way of thinking about this importance of ever-unfolding possibility, the portrait-oriented AB061. By layering solid black shapes, whose hard-edge boldness tends to command visual attention, and by removing parts of their whole, what lies beneath is revealed: more shapes, more compositions. The removal does not read as a lack, rather it functions like a window, a glimpse into another possible configuration of geometric elements. Shape dances with its own absences to create new shapes, as if we could crop the compositions or zoom in and out ad infinitum and continually discover new possibility after new possibility, even while (re-)using the same foundational tools. The work suggests constant evolution, and accompanying this, constant visual pleasure.

Chris Chandler, AB061, 2023, monotype relief print mounted on panel. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Elemental Forms is not simply a mimicry of the modernist aesthetic movements. To use Constructivism as the only rubric for understanding the work would be a disservice to the work Chandler has done to balance his inspirations, his predecessors, and his own attuned understanding of spatial relations. Regardless of whether or not you intimately know the history of Constructivism, it’s very apparent that Chandler has an eye for graphic design– particularly a fun, mostly serious eye. Across all the works, he demonstrates a keen awareness and skill for toying with formal elements of arranging shapes on the picture plane. Yet there is a tuned simplicity to the works: his geometric compositions are stern and not at all shy, speckled with surprising moments that evidence the presence of his hand, allowing space for both the trained and the casual viewer to appreciate shape and color. Elemental Forms is a bold debut for Chandler at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, and it will be exciting to see what new forms emerge in future iterations.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jason N. Le (they/them) is a Vietnamese American writer, thinker, and curator based in Portland, Oregon. Their academic background lies in art history and critical theory, focused on postwar American art, identity politics, performance theory, and the genealogy of arts criticism. They hold degrees from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Portland State University, and their other critical arts writing can be found at Art & About PDX.

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