Abstract artists look at craft

A show of hands
By BRITTA KONAU  |  September 28, 2011

‘BLUEJAY INCIDENT’ Acrylic on acrylic sheet and wood, 16 by 52 inches, by Stew Henderson, 2009.

Abstraction is currently getting a lot of attention in Portland. Aucocisco is showing three painters whose work is lively and vibrant, providing a visual feast — Joshua Ferry, Stew Henderson, and Kayla Mohammadi. The three make an interesting comparison in terms of visibility of the artist's hand and because their work is deeply informed by craft.

Ferry and Henderson are stealing the show, not just because they are more prominently displayed in the front part of the gallery, but because their work is so clearly optically seductive. Henderson began painting on acrylic in 2008; all works in this show are from 2009. Stripes and fields of solid color are painted on wood and sheets of acrylic, then layered into multiple units and configured into a whole, yet seemingly without any intrinsic delimitation. The units' rhythm, weight, and direction interact with one another and the shadows cast by the stripes and edges of the acrylic sheets create an insubstantial but important subset of lines. The problem I have with Henderson's work is two-fold: a few compositional decisions seem out of place to me and simple craftsmanship is not always at its height. However, there is one work that truly stands out for me. "Bluejay Incident," unlike the other works, does not consist of similar panels of equal size, but instead horizontally aligns five panels that each add a new dynamic interest while blue horizontal stripes pull it all together and clinch the composition.

What read like imperfections in Henderson's work are deliberate indices of the artist's hand in Ferry's paintings and enhance them immensely. His grids of multi-valued gray squares contain centered crosses of many hues. Some paintings use the same set of colors but in different configurations, so a viewer may search for an underlying pattern and enjoy the pulsating sense of warm and cool hues advancing and receding. Ferry's paintings evoke tiles because of their modular structure, raised edges caused by the use of masking tape, and material substance on exposed canvas. The artist's personal touch is evidenced through visible patches of underlying paint layers that enliven the work and add humanity to paintings that reference the religious, not only in the form of crosses, but also through titles like "Basilica Study" and "St. Francis."

Approaching Mohammadi's paintings is like going from the poles (Henderson) to temperate zones (Ferry) to the tropics. Although she uses cool colors, her intuitive and bold paint application heats up the atmosphere. Over the years Mohammadi's paintings have very much grown on me and I suspect that she would have done better in a solo show. Her work vacillates between representation and abstraction with some strong patterning thrown in, which is really what ties them to the rest of this show — as is beautifully illustrated by the placement of "Hanko III" next to Henderson's "Garden Steps." Mohammadi builds up the painting with crude brush strokes and wavy lines, applying paint generously and sparsely as well. There is a suggestion of a sofa in front of a window, a flower — but that is not important. What is important are the discontinuities within the spaces she creates. With the exception of two smaller paintings of vibrant daubs and lines of color, her work is not easy to like because it falls between categories and expectations. But giving them some time generates appreciation for the balances and interactions happening within them.

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