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To many viewers, abstract art can seem to speak its own unfamiliar language, making it hard to relate to or understand. Geometric abstraction, with its rigid forms and chilly precision, can come off as particularly impenetrable, detached and dull. An Art at the Mercy of Light, the current exhibition at the University of Manitoba's School of Art Gallery, proves that it doesn't have to.
Highlighting recent works by Eli Bornstein, one of the Prairie provinces' most influential senior artists, the exhibition shows that even austere, highly refined abstract works can reflect a heartfelt engagement with the natural world, a sensitivity to subtle environmental factors and a regard for viewers' unique perceptions.
They can also be emphatically, unapologetically beautiful.
Actively producing work at age 92, Bornstein has spent his career refining a vocabulary of simple geometric forms, one familiar to many Winnipeggers from his 1964 Structural Relief in Fifteen Parts, the massive frieze installed in the old Richardson Airport terminal. While that work employed a limited range of rectangular forms and primary colours inherited from early modernism, the more recent sculptures in this exhibition feature subtler, more complex geometries and a vibrant, varied palette of saturated hues.
Most of the works are what Bornstein calls "multiplane structurist reliefs," gently folding, panoramic screens made from two to six aluminum panels, each sprayed with a carefully chosen shade of richly pigmented acrylic. The luminous, near-seamless gradations of colour that result evoke the natural landscape without ever picturing it directly. Works in the Sunset Series ease from dusky violet to shocking pink, while an Arctic Series relief pulses with the lurid blue-greens of the Northern Lights.
Other sculptures evoke views of the South Saskatchewan River or the impossible greens and yellows of a flowering canola field. (At a time of year when everything in Winnipeg comes in shades of dirty snow and orange streetlight, Bornstein's exuberant jewel tones have an immediate, intoxicating appeal.)
Scattered smaller shapes erupt across the sculptures' peaks and valleys, aligned according to invisible grids and diagonals. Though held in place by hundreds of hidden screws, the strips and squares of painted aluminum appear weightless, their hesitant but orderly configurations recalling anything from newly forming ice crystals and plant structures to broken reflections on the water's surface.
Despite their undeniable visual impact and industrial construction, the works are in some ways remarkably vulnerable -- "at the mercy of light," as the title suggests. Because harsh lighting would overpower finely tuned colour relationships and disrupt the play of light and shadow off the multifaceted surfaces, the gallery's usual spotlights have been replaced with dim, diffuse fluorescent bulbs. Even under these controlled conditions, the sculptures seem to flicker and shift with every passing shadow and change in viewing angle, giving them an unexpectedly animated, "living" quality.
Bornstein's constructions are rigorously formal, his work firmly rooted in multiple, overlapping strains of modernist abstraction. At the same time, his meticulously arranged forms, colours and patterns continually refer back to those found nature, and the sculptures are just stupefyingly nice to look at.
As analytical and "abstract" as it may be, Bornstein's "art at the mercy of light" speaks a language anyone can understand.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.