Louise Despont, “The Six-Sided Force”
Pioneer Works, June 15 - July 29
By ADRIAN COLEMAN
For the artist Louise Despont, few venues could be more fitting than Pioneer Works. The Reconstruction Era warehouse, once a manufacturing plant of transport and agricultural machinery, is now Red Hook’s holistic mecca of arts, craft, and experimentation. In addition to Despont’s latest show, the center hosts workshops on archaic photography and lectures concerning quantum reality. Pioneer Works’ curated synthesis and even disregard of chronology projects a mythical time when microbiology, Futurism, and quilting were simultaneously explored.
Despont’s totemic drawings belong to such a context. Her geometries are striking, on first impression, for their variety of allusions. These include architectural lithography, Persian textiles, tantric mandalas, and astronomical charts. Despont constructs graphite patterns with complex axial and symmetrical relationships. Her fundamental building blocks are nevertheless simple, often circles and triangles. The repetition of pure, unstylized shapes implies a timeless order. Despont’s work is a reminder that abstraction has existed through the ages, and the revolution of western Modern art, with its proclivity for fields, grids, and the nonobjective, is somewhat overstated.
Despont’s dialogue with the past is intentional. Using the paper of antique ledgers, she derives grids from the spacing of ruled lines, which in turn establishes a rhythm to her compositions. The browned surface, along with its pink and blue markings, significantly affects the color balance of the drawings. Despont allows the typeface and inked handwriting of used pages to show through the pencil. It is wonderful to imagine of a 19th century accountant who, driven through boredom to hypnotic trance, elaborates the most ravishing of doodles. This thought is particularly delicious in the cases of Despont’s single sheet “miniatures.” These jewel-like meditations, sometimes gilded with gold leaf, are fragile and intimately-scaled. Perhaps they were buried in the records like guarded, secret dreams.
In addition to the intricacy of designs, Despont’s application of color is also remarkable. Large areas of paper or canvas can be rapidly painted using large brushes. Pencils, however, are consistently small. Despont’s grander drawings, occupying a patchwork of many ledger pages, require tremendous effort to shade. Up close, the work has a rich, fuzzy grain that registers the commitment of labor. The palette itself is quite subtle, translucent primary colors and grays warmed by the sandy paper beneath. The effect of this intensely-rendered but muted color is that the drawings embody a subliminal energy.
In this respect, Despont’s drawings have similarities to the work of Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt. These artists executed systematic operations of line and limited color. Yet their visual structures are patient and mesmerizing, the iterative routines appearing devotional rather than mechanical. Despont shares this procedural while introspective quality, but her work is not minimal. Unlike Martin or Lewitt, her strategy of moves occurs at a hierarchy of scales. For instance, a sequence of small triangles may define a larger figure that is repeated in a superior pattern. One set of rules generates subsequent geometries and secondary rules which produce further geometries and rules. This reproductive nesting of motifs suggests a living, autopoietic process.
Indeed, the exhibition is titled “The Six-Sided Force,” in relation to the hexagonal cells of beehives. Pioneer Works describes the show as an investigation of “colony collapse... [and the] architectures, seen and unseen, between nature and human influence.” Despont draws upon the precise language of diagrams, but her drawings are not obvious illustrations of an argument. Her abstractions are like music, without specific narrative and expressive mostly of themselves and their own internal logics. Nevertheless, the environmental reference is formally relevant to the idea of systemic failure. Although the viewer should not take the analogy too literally, it is interesting to conceptualize the pattern progressions not only as growths but as breakdowns, as if a cycle has been steadily compromised.
How do these aesthetic protocols relate to the anachronism of their representation? This question resonates in the space of the exhibition. Despont’s transmutation of old office documents is something like the transformation of the industrial hall into a nave-like volume. A cynic might dismiss these projects as thrift store affectation. Yet to salvage and see wonder in discards is an act of generosity. By using borrowed artifacts as a starting point, Despont shares her authorship. She is the guardian of her process but not its progenitor. In a sense, Despont is working the second shift, an accountant of esoteric measures.
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Adrian Coleman is a painter and architect living in New York. His work has appeared, among other places, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013.