Sunday, July 26, 2009


By Tom Wachunas

Encountering the paintings by E.F. Hebner (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University) currently on view at OSU Urban Arts Space, and discerning how and where they intersect with the history of abstraction, is a bit like talking to a soft-spoken stranger for the first time. You might feel instantly engaged by his cryptic yet poetic way of speaking, but can’t quite place his vaguely foreign accent. You ask him, “Who are you, where did you come from?” He might very well answer with the casual aplomb of, say, a Zen Master, “Oh, here and there.”

A mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Or is it a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery? I never get that one straight.

The 17 acrylic paintings on masonite in this exhibition, called “E.F. Hebner / Excerpts…2009,” were done between 1994 and 2005, and are culled from a rich body of work that includes, to name only some phases, mixed media assemblages with an eye on Bauhaus elegance; sublimely meticulous representational collages; tiny “reductivist” abstractions; and original as well as collaborative performance pieces.

And it is arguably in the context of appreciating performance art where the significance of this particular group of paintings might be most fully embraced. Ironic, too, since “finished” paintings are ostensibly static expressions that don’t readily invite comparisons to “real time” forms. But here, all of Hebner’s past formal concerns on a purely visual level have been confidently re-packaged and illuminated by an implicit, palpable sensitivity to the interface of unfolding time and the process of making marks on a two-dimensional surface. In that sense, frankly, there’s nothing completely new here on an ideological plane. I’m reminded of Harold Rosenberg’s astute observations about Jackson Pollock’s work, for example, and how it heralded modern painting’s transcendence from the confines of traditionally delineated “pictures” into a broader evidence of purely dramatic “events”. That analysis describes the raison d’etre behind the work of countless abstract painters for decades since Pollock and his cohorts initially formulated their painting language. Painting as performance. The supremacy of gestures recorded in time.

Hebner’s images, however, for all their eloquent homage to abstract painting methodologies and techniques, are still delineated pictures of one sort or another, with their own internal pictorial logic, and gloriously so. They might even be narratives, though not in the common linear sense of having succinct beginnings and ends. Instead, they impart information about relationships between clearly defined components and their underlying histories. Viewing them, we are drawn into the ongoing lyrical middle of something that traverses subtly textured topographies at once hauntingly familiar and utterly strange. There are images within images. There are spaces within spaces. There are paintings beneath paintings. There be ghosts here. But certainly not the stuff of nightmares.

In fact, one quality in abundance here is an abiding sense of humor and serene playfulness, from the almost cartoonish rendering of bold, distilled shapes -always executed with a delightfully precise elegance of line - to the titles of some of the paintings, such as “Behoovity” from 1996, “Erstwhility” from 2003, and “Landscapey” from 2002. In the latter, blue air and ocean seem eerily reversed when considering that the painting’s top could be a shore, and its bottom “edge” a sky morphed into an urban skyline silhouette.

Many of the paintings are compelling explorations of a subtle visual tension, wherein areas of clustered shapes and lines are suspended within, or seemingly cut into the surface of broader, “empty” space that is often itself a shape taking form and breaking the picture plane. They exude a sensibility of being not so much intentionally constructed or pre-planned as they are intuitively de-constructed and re- discovered.

Dramatic events indeed, their extemporaneous quality is still a consciously manipulated one to the extent that Hebner’s uncanny and unerring eye for right color and design informed a decision to arrest the process at a certain, satisfying point. On one level, then, we are in effect looking at pictures that are about becoming pictures. A memorable example is the 2002 painting, “Unhidden.” It’s a marvelous foray into figure-ground ambiguity and controlled spontaneity. Perhaps the title refers to the very tiny red square nestled at the bottom of one of the long vertical stripes that comprise the heart of the painting. It’s easy to miss if you look too fast and could be, in the pictorial “story,” either a remnant of under-painting, or the emergence of a whole new passage.

Back to the metaphor of the soft-spoken stranger with the vaguely foreign accent. If he speaks in terms that are in fact both cryptic and poetic, it’s only because he describes a reality parallel to, as well as separate from, our own, and one that demands an appropriately unique, beautiful terminology. Similarly, what Hebner has accomplished is a meditative calligraphy that is both intensely private and immediately accessible. As viewers we become privy to exposed essences floating in a kind of dream state. And as with all good dreams, these images resonate and linger, gentle in their clamoring to be remembered.

Photo by Christopher Kay: “Behoovity” by E.F. Hebner 1996, acrylic on masonite, 20”x20”, courtesy OSU Urban Arts Space, from the exhibition “E.F. Hebner/Excerpts…2009”, through October 10, 2009 Reception: Thursday, September24, 7 – 9p.m.
50 West Town Street (Lazarus Building), Columbus, Ohio (614) 292 – 8861