Michael Lazarus

Considering the Art Gym’s abstractions

At Marylhurst, curator Blake Shell has gathered 10 artists who work in the abstract for a colorful group show

One of the dominant art doctrines during the Renaissance argued that art was “an allegory of the mind of God,” an imitation of a hidden reality, a form of revelation. Culture critic and historian Raymond Williams teased out this one (along with three other aesthetic philosophies) in “The Long Revolution,” and it seems especially pertinent to abstract art, some of which has a specific spiritual connection, after all, as early abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky made clear.

Approaching the ten artists and 32 artworks in the Marylhurst Art Gym’s “and from the distance one might never imagine that it is alive” with the idea of the hidden made visible in mind leads to some happily perplexing moments.

'and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive,' (left to right) Grant Hottle, Ron Graff, and Amy Bernstein, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym. Amy Bernstein's "Flesh of My Flesh" is at the far right.

‘and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive,’ (left to right) Grant Hottle, Ron Graff, and Amy Bernstein, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym. Amy Bernstein’s “Flesh of My Flesh” is at the far right.

For example, Amy Bernstein’s “Flesh of My Flesh” gathers a set of small splashes, ribbons, and shapes of thick oil paint on a gleaming white canvas. How should we interpret those individual gestures and the painting as a whole? What hidden reality does it reveal? Something about the nature of pure paint, its elements, perhaps, the attraction of color—bright blue, red, purple striated with white—deployed in various small splotches? Or the mind of the painter who deployed them in just this way, which seems random but is not? Is this the way God creates, and what would the implications of THAT be?

Blake Shell, the exhibit’s curator and Art Gym director, picked out a set of four of Pat Boas’s Sumi ink on paper pieces, gradations of gray, pale to nearly opaque, layer upon layer, curves and lines, diagonals, verticals and horizontals. The hidden reality might be that the universe conceals as it reveals; or, that the number of veils between us and reality is countless. Of course, if Shell had picked a different four pieces from the same set, called “Unalphabetic,” which overlay the Sumi ink with a riot of bright colors, shapes and lines in gouache and watercolor, then the thinking might be entirely different.

and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive, (left to right) Michelle Ross, Grant Hottle, and Ron Graff, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym

and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive, (left to right) Michelle Ross, Grant Hottle, and Ron Graff, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym

My point isn’t to argue that art IS an allegory of the mind of God. Another doctrine that replaced the Renaissance attempts to square the aesthetic ideas of Aristotle, Plato and Christianity, gradually gained strength, according to Raymond’s account: Nature is God’s creation; art is man’s. He quotes the poet Tasso: “There are two creators: God and the Poet.” I suppose a poet would say that?

No, my point is simply to observe that if we’re going to get anything out of “and from the distance one might never imagine that it is alive,” an exhibition of abstract work, it will involve some interpretation on our part after we’ve spent some time observing the art. In that speculation, anything goes, from thoughts about the divine mind (or its absence) to a sudden, non-biblical revelation about a color combination that might work in the kitchen.

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