“Minimal Impact” at Lichtundfire
By JONATHAN GOODMAN October, 2018
“Minimal Impact,” the three-person show now on view at Lichtundfire, concerns the work of Augustus Goertz, Alan Steele, and Christopher Stout. Curated by Priska Juschka, the director of the gallery, the show offers paintings, drawings, and constructions that tend to relate to minimalist abstraction. This kind of art looks to what has become more or less a historical movement, although minimalism’s influence remains evident within individual work if not among groups. In the three artists considered here, there is a wide variation in styles: Goertz’s work moves more in the direction of abstract expressionism, Steele’s art leans toward visionary architecture, and Stout’s museum board pieces evidence minimalism most directly. Really, the show is an exercise in abstraction, leading slowly but surely toward a statement of ongoing interest in New York esthetics, where the tradition of nonobjective art is particularly strong. We can argue, and often do, about the effectiveness of art that remains within a tradition that was established generations ago, but this is likely beside the point: In current circumstances, it is still valid for artists to take an interest in a historical legacy and make it work again. Indeed, all abstract art is fated to follow its precedents, given the fact that such good nonobjective art was made in the past. But this can be done extremely well, as the work by Goertz, Steele, and Stout shows.
Today, abstract art is maintained by the concomitant effort to recognize achievements of the past and present new style and content. We expect this to happen in a culture that has applauded the innovative for more than a few decades. But it is also true that innovation needs something to stand on--in this case, the immediate history of minimalism and the earlier (but continuing) legacy of abstraction. With regard to minimalism, it is impossible to pare down any further, in a formal sense, the efforts of Judd, Andre, and Serra. But the impulse and decisiveness of their work is so strong that it is able to support ongoing efforts in this style--as happens in this show. But history is a problem for most contemporary artists working now; it can be argued that fine art has reached a cul-de-sac in a formal sense--there is nothing new to discover, as the late critic Arthur C. Danto declared. But that doesn’t look like what has really happened; individual artists are still making pieces that invest in the beginnings of abstraction, which took place about a century ago. Minimalism, of course, is far more recent; we see the three artists here suggesting a conjoined effort with its less-is-more beliefs. But their work denotes nostalgia not so much as an active interpretation of a style whose greatest time of influence is over, even if that period is very close to us in time. If we work within an already established tradition, as these artists do, the burden on them is to find ways that will push the visual language ahead. As it turns out, in “Minimal Impact,” they do that extremely well.
Goertz is a New York artist who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute. A process painter, he works within an intuition that is informed by the recent past. His art tends to present a dark palette; his surfaces are highly interesting and complex. In the pieces chosen here for review, we see a more colorful example than usual: Primal Residue (2018), a roughly squared, completely abstract work of art that includes layers--blue at the bottom, multi-colored in the middle, and red on top. In the center is a roughly circular area, with lightly colored components. It considers abstract expressionism in its expressive edges, but an argument can also be made for its minimal gestalt. The title indicates emotion of unusual intensity, which is what occurs in the painting. Two Dark Matters (2018) is composed of a rough swathe of gray on a light background. The gray patch supports three rough images--two black circles on either side of a white one. Splotches and drips occur on the edge of the gray, echoing what happens in Primal Residue. In both cases, the impact of painterly energies is strong, thus existing in agreement with the show’s title. Goertz is wonderfully effective in managing a process in painting we know well. His style is of course linked to the past, but, at the same time, its vehemence demands that the audience see the work as genuinely new. Maybe the best point to be gotten from these two paintings is the artist’s inspired handling of an established method, in a fashion that causes us to continue respecting that method.
In Steele’s art, we often feel like we have come across the blueprint plans for an architectural project. His work evidences clean lines and precise, usually geometric forms. Like the other two artists in the show, he lives in New York, where minimalism began, also a major influence on his work. In an untitled drawing from 2016, he delineates rows of small tan-colored squares floating in space, underneath which are a series of blue lines that merge in points, framing the squares with precision. It is a drawing of high conceptual origins, as well as being a striking example of technical skill. The entire piece floats in an undefined space, so that the acuity of the design seems a touch unearthly. In another untitled work from the same year, a tan cube sits in the middle of paved squares, with complexes of geometrically angled lines above it and below it. These groups of lines form a network that, in the upper register particularly, can be likened to the struts and supports of a bridge. Because of their structural import, they move past a simple declaration of minimalism toward the earlier, geometric modernism that flourished a century ago. These two drawings example the finesse of Steele’s creativity, as well as interpreting, in contemporary form, the insights that come from the 1970s, when minimalism held sway.
Finally, Stout’s monochromatic paintings demonstrate the recognition that color can be a structural element by itself. His work here looks black but is actually a deep midnight blue; this blue is so dark it appears black. Stout relies on the single hue as physical evidence nearly three-dimensional in its aspect. In Hronir (Unlost Things) (2018), a dark panel is placed on top of a wider dark panel; the experience of the work is one of near monumentality, despite its small size. (In the title of this work and the one that follows, Stout also refers to “Queer Abstraction” and “Queer Martyrs & Saints,” respectively. Queer artists like Stout can and do paint excellent abstractions, but it must be said that monochrome paintings cannot be formally tied to sexual preference, either straight or gay.) Often Not Alone 1 (2018), also a smallish work of art, is made with the remainders of nine plaster cylinders that were first attached to and then removed from a museum panel; the entire work has been painted again in a dark midnight blue. The inside of the circles defining the ghosts of the cylinders is rough, lending texture to the work. In both paintings, Stout reprises monochromatic art, developed in the last century and still practiced now. He joins the other two artists in their appreciation of what took place before they began painting, and in doing so, he makes his argument at least partially historical, even as he applies his insights to work done right now.
What can we make of a show like this, where gifted artists make use of older themes? Nothing anymore seems to happen that is entirely new, so our relations to painting must take on close to scholarly appreciation. But the three artists here stand out by virtue of their technical skill; they make the old new again via their technical abilities. And, even more than that, they find a native energy in the past. Their process is not much like the early part of the twentieth century, when a revolutionary cubism shattered perspective. It is true of all the arts today that we are treading on well-established ground. Yet that doesn’t mean that we can’t offer a new point of view, albeit with limitations. This may be all we can do, but for the audience visiting this show, it should be more than enough. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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