Monday, March 12, 2018

Of Place and Planes

Of Place and Planes

By Tom Wachunas

    “But, after all, the aim of art is to create space - space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.”  - Frank Stella 

    “A painter is a choreographer of space.”  - Barnett Newman

   EXHIBIT: MULTI – by Natalie Lanese / THROUGH APRIL 6 at Main Hall Art Gallery / Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / Viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. (closed during Spring Break, March 26 – April 1) 

   Back in 1959, Frank Stella’s seminal ‘black paintings’ knocked the art world for a loop. More than a few passionate purveyors of abstract expressionism regarded his bleak, so-called minimalist surfaces as the death of art. Stella’s assessment? “What you see is what you see.”  It’s not too unreasonable that we would regard his statement as deliberately smug and elliptical. But we can and should just as well take it as throwing down a gauntlet – a challenge to deconstruct and re-configure the broader processes of making, presenting, and seeing a painting.

   Natalie Lanese is a resident of Toledo, Ohio, and Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. Her current installation at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Art Gallery certainly lives up to its name – Multi – in how it playfully explores and crosses multiple formal boundaries (painting/collage/sculpture). 

   Playful indeed, at least initially, there’s something momentarily disorienting in how Lanese’s paintings on paper are so insistent, so in-your-face loud while quietly seething with perceptual ambiguities of spatial depth and figure-ground dynamics.  Their sleek, commercially- printed look (from a distance) disappears on close examination. This is flat house paint, applied by hand. The surfaces have a subtly gestural immediacy.  Their flirtation with optical illusions or flickerings of ghostly after-images makes the whole gallery space pulse and sway. 

   A substantial portion of the exhibit is given over to multiple paintings joined in a continuous band, in turn mounted on top of black or orange diagonal stripes painted directly on to the gallery wall. The white gallery walls are no longer an incidental architectural backdrop, but now an integral part of a vast sculptural/pictorial collage. In other passages, the paintings break with traditional display protocol, casually curving away from the wall, their bottom portions jutting out and resting on the floor. It’s really a benevolent invasion of our psychological space - a literal undermining of our predispositions and assumptions about our sense of place as viewers in a gallery environment.

   You might think something like, “Wait a minute. I need this floor to be a floor, my spot to be grounded and stable as I look straight ahead at art on a wall.”  But your eyes start darting about in a zig-zagging manner, retracing the patterns of those colors, those bold colors so intensely present that you feel pushed, pulled, maybe even punched. You can’t help but see the ceiling, noticing its gridded rhythms of tiles punctuated by repeating lines of lights, their soft reflections, along with those of the paintings, seemingly puddled on the floor. No, not on the floor, but somehow underneath it. Suddenly, this kinetic sensation of floating, or being immersed, makes you an active participant in a bright theatre of intersecting planes, a partner in a performance.   
   Lanese has choreographed a glowing gauntlet – an integrated retinal, psychological, and conceptual experience. She’s invited us to not just see what we see, but to dance with it.

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