When faced with contemporary art, many gallery-goers take on a peculiar look of disorientation: face skewed, eyes squinting, mouth open in confusion.
"What does it mean?"
Christopher Lynn, director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, wants them (and you) to know. For his upcoming show, Young Moderns, Lynn pulled together works of John McEnroe, who hangs sheaths of paint with no canvas; Sarah Braman, who paints on cardboard and Plexiglas sculptures; and Todd Chilton, who paints flat, argyle designs.
The works in the show exemplify the Modernist tradition, which, according to Lynn, was defined in the 1950s by art critic Clement Greenberg as a movement in which artists celebrated the qualities specific to painting. This meant retaining the appearance of paint on the shape of the canvas, instead of creating the illusion of space.
Greenberg wasn't creating something new, but observing a moment in art history. Lynn quotes Greenberg when he says, "Modernism is not a break in with the past. It may mean a devolution, an unraveling of tradition, but it also means its further evolution."
Even Picasso used visual puns to reincorporate the three-dimensional onto a flat surface.
"The surface is usually a location for illusion of depth and form," explains Lynn. "Picasso used three-dimensional objects, like caning from a chair, and flattened their images onto the surface of his works."
In all the works in Young Moderns, the materials used are evident. Paint drips down Todd Chilton's argyle designs. Sarah Braman's sculptures look like ... painted Plexiglas and cardboard. And if Greenberg thought paintings should celebrate the qualities of paint as a medium, McEnroe fulfills that notion; his paintings are all paint, no canvas.
McEnroe pours a mix of acrylics, polymers and latex (for elasticity, viscosity and strength) onto a slab of plaster 12 by 5 feet and weighing 3,000 pounds. He uses an engine hoist to manipulate the movement of the plaster slab, causing the mix of paint to flow into a shape.
"My work is not autobiographical or metaphorical," explains Denver's McEnroe. "It does comment on art itself. It does use the history of art as a lever to talk about painting or to talk about materials."
It's as if McEnroe's using Greenberg's ideas to such an extreme that they fold in on themselves: without a canvas, the painting necessarily abandons the rectilinear form. But even that, like any single interpretation, would limit the viewer's experience and the power of the artwork.
"There's no overt message [in the paintings]," McEnroe says. "They're a thoughtful play with materials. Let's leave it at that."
Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS, 1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy.
Opening reception: Friday, Dec. 14, 5:30-7 p.m. (with artists speaking at 6) for GoCA supporters and UCCS students, 7-9 for the public. Show runs Dec. 17 through Feb. 9.
For more information, call 262-3567 or visit galleryuccs.org.