Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed September 20, 1996
Contact: Linda Mahdesian

Exploring the abstract

David Winton Bell Gallery presents Order/Disorder Oct. 19 - Nov. 24

The exhibition, Order/Disorder: Paintings by Natalie Alper, Lydia Dona, Mary Heilmann & Jacqueline Humphries will be presented at the Bell Gallery Oct. 19 through Nov. 24.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University will present Order/Disorder: Paintings by Natalie Alper, Lydia Dona, Mary Heilmann & Jacqueline Humphries from Oct. 19 through Nov. 24, 1996.

A panel discussion with the artists and catalog essayist Barry Schwabsky will be held at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, in the List Art Center Auditorium, with a reception following in the Bell Gallery. The exhibition and panel discussion are free and open to the public. An illustrated catalog, published by the Bell Gallery, accompanies the exhibition.

The exploration of abstraction has been a moving force in art of the 20th century, and it is abstraction's contemporary manifestation that is examined in this exhibition. In defining her vision for Order/Disorder, Diana Johnson, until recently the director of the Bell Gallery, wrote, "We are focusing on abstract work where objective form is not a mediator, where there is an implicit (or explicit) sense of the body of the maker, and where there is some emphasis on becoming rather than being." This emphasis on "becoming rather than being" places the works within the realm of gestural abstraction - the most prominent example of which is American abstract expressionism - which encourages subjectivity and spontaneity, improvisation and impulsive methods, and unsystematic and unstructured compositions.

The four artists included in the exhibition span two generations, born between 1940 and 1960. While all may be seen as descendants of abstract expressionism, the artists draw inspiration from other diverse sources: Lydia Dona's work is filled with references to Marcel Duchamp, patron saint of conceptual art; Jacqueline Humphries has Andy Warhol among her pantheon; Mary Heilmann began her career not as a painter but as a ceramic sculptor and names the post-minimal sculptors of her generation, like Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, as stimulants to her work; and Natalie Alper's interest in chaos theory parallels that of a broad range of contemporary artists, many of whom are as likely to use a computer as wield a paintbrush.

Geometric grids, sometime heavily disguised, underlie the works of Lydia Dona and Natalie Alper. Geometric color fields in the shape of circles, rectangles and pyramids form a platform onto which Dona layers splatters of paint and diagrammatic figures taken from automobile repair manuals or medical textbooks. The most prominent elements of Natalie Alper's works are wide, sometimes squiggle swatches of earth-tone color. These massive currents of paint are sectioned by thinner, wiry white channels scraped into them to reveal the underlying gessoed ground. Party visible beneath the swatches is Alper's "grid-skeleton" - a series of pencil lines that meet the edges of the canvas in orderly, regularly spaced points, but which meander across the canvas in cursive waves.

The geometric elements in Mary Heilmann and Jacqueline Humphries' works - lines and rectangles in the first, strips in the second - are inexact and irregular. In his catalog essay, Barry Schwabsky points out the conflict in this approach: "Even to speak of geometry is to imply some degree of rationalism and idealism: a square, a rectangle, a circle, for example, are conceived of as intellectual constructs existing in some Platonic eternity outside the vicissitudes of our messy quotidian reality. But to speak of the rectangles in one of Heilmann's paintings is to speak only approximately." The irrational nature of Heilmann and Humphries forms, Schwabsky writes, adds to their expressive, visceral impact.