Massry exhibit asks viewers to chart own paths
Lisa Corinne Davis likes to lead us on and not quite give anything away in her recent paintings at the Esther Massry Gallery. This show of over a dozen large, energetic, methodical oils on canvas plays with shapes and colors as much as it does any actual places or spaces. They are abstract, but they succeed because they suggest that they aren't, completely, abstract.
The title of the show, "Turbulent Terrain," tips the artist's hand slightly, if you take it literally. What come off at first like playful, all-over abstractions quickly complicate into some semblance of diagrams or maps. Many have loose grid-like nets from edge to edge, but these are distorted a bit, and the order of the surface gets dimpled and nudged.
It's as if there is a topography underneath a visual semiotic surface — a series of familiar shapes and relationships that in fact mean nothing but are a response to something real below. Something unseen, but hinted at. Lines become rivers, or schematic suggestions of pipelines and arteries, or walking routes on a crumpled tourist map of Florence. Or just meandering lines that follow their own directions and impulses across the canvas.
"Groundless Construct," with its expansive mixture of components, is characteristic and revealing, in part because there are some small areas of black and white lines that really are taken from a street map (or made to look like it). Elsewhere are some slightly irregular bluish squares and then lots of very irregular orange polygons that make a rough funnel shape over the top of things. Some thin lines like rope snake here and there, collecting at the bottom edge as if gravity was working from the top down.
It's all a curious, beautiful enterprise. The winding, linear elements, like the brown pipeline in "Analytical Anarchism," lead your eye around, looping and finding other textures and components to take in. Some of the simplest paintings, like the mostly yellow "Cogent Concoction," with rows of little bubble-like beads and other lines, flatten and become less demanding, and less interesting (though still pretty). Others might seem awkward to some, or too similar to the others to stand out, but there is a broader feeling in the show of clear intention, and a subtle balance of elements with the formal control to succeed.
This kind of painting — abstract but anchored in something readable and vaguely familiar — comes ultimately from the 1950s works of Jasper Johns by way of 1970s postmodern theory laden with signifiers separated from what they signify. You might be able to brush it off as a lot of well-done and attractive art for art's sake, with a stubborn sensation of being inconsequential, all this beautiful layering and visual play with ambiguous non-meaning.
But against that natural reaction I would first point out all the interesting aspects of the sources suggested here: the idea of maps and spaces made into their own objects, the notion of fictional dalliances constructed with known notational devices. And what does she mean by including rainbow stripes in several paintings, as if snipped from rainbow flags? Maybe nothing. And what if the "maps" implied are actually rooted in real places, or real schematics?
Maybe we can also embrace painting for the joy of painting. The mashup of lines, splotches, dimpled grids, and giddy colors makes for really interesting new surfaces. On canvas. With good old oil paint. You get sucked in, and the more closely you look the more collisions and layering you find, on and on.
William Jaeger is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.