There are those who claim that "abstract painting" is an exhausted area of inquiry, if not an outright impossibility. At a point when every conceivable method for applying pigment to a surface has been thoroughly explored, when every brushstroke, smear and squiggle has some established precedent in art history, the idea of "nonrepresentational" art gets a bit tenuous.
If every mark and gesture can be thought to refer back to something in the world, even if it's just another painting, can one make a new, truly "abstract" work -- or just a picture of one?
The four artists in Re-Configuring Abstraction, the current exhibition at the University of Manitoba's School of Art Gallery, all have some connection to the school, either as an instructor or former student. They're also all painterly omnivores: each has worked with recognizable imagery, in the past if not currently, and they demonstrate a certain inclusiveness with regard to content and technique. Rather than retreating from the "encroachment" of meaning into the formal vocabularies of abstract painting, they seize upon precisely the most meaningful bits, "reconfiguring" them to chart new territory.
Holger Kalberg's work has frequently treated architectural subjects -- modernist buildings flanked by palm trees, that sort of thing. He employs similar techniques, a combination of hard-edged planes of flat colour, thinner washes, and gestural brushwork, to create the "structures" and "spaces" of his layered, collage-like abstract compositions. Moving beyond the canvas, the exhibition also features one of Kalberg's free-hanging modular sculptures, a suspended tangle of folded acrylic pieces strongly recalling 3D visualizations of molecular structures.
Dil Hildebrand came to prominence combining aspects of photorealism and abstract painting, drawing on his experience building sets for film and television to create disorienting interior/landscape hybrids. His more recent work also courts the illusion of depth and form, but the paintings in the show tackle the shallower "space" of the drafting table. Deep green backgrounds evoke chalkboards or cutting mats, and the artist "builds up" and "lays down" configurations of what might be wood, wallboard, chalk lines, and masking tape using paint applied with varying thickness and precision.
While Krisjanis Katkins-Gorsline's work has at times approached cartoony surrealism, his contributions to the exhibition distil his painterly approach to its component parts. Lifting shapes and motifs from other paintings, he remixes and recombines these elements to create knotted fields of pattern and colour. Conflicting washes of dripping paint soak into the canvas, held together (figuratively) with networks of flats shapes, linear elements, and, in one case, an actual, painted net.
Derek Dunlop provides the show's most unassuming works and perhaps its most enigmatic and unyielding. Where previously the artist has lifted content from sources as diverse as war photographs and amateur pornography, these spare, meditative works have been purged of recognizable imagery. Three untitled paintings consist of "floating" squares that appear to glow from within, the illusion seemingly in conflict with the rich surface quality of glossy, thickly applied areas of paint. A white-on-white canvas features an obsessively repeated motif of sculpturally applied triangles, dots, and dashes arranged in a tight but clearly hand-rendered grid.
As curator Mary Reid notes in her catalogue essay, the exhibition highlights an area of artistic production in Winnipeg that doesn't always receive a great deal of attention (we're better known for "figurative and narrative-driven" work, she allows). If Re-Configuring Abstraction is any indication, it's an area that's been no less productive -- or innovative -- for being occasionally overlooked.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based emerging artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.
Derek Dunlop, Dil Hildebrand, Krisjanis Katkins-Gorsline, Holger Kalberg
School of Art Gallery, University of Manitoba
To Jan. 11, 2013