Painting is a slow medium, a medium built for mulling. This makes it a good place to consider today’s instantaneous, ever-moving technological world. But despite topical references to science and digital imagery, this art isn’t really about taking on these subjects. It’s art about beautifully replicating their visual effects. Abstraction here is a way to avoid engagement.
Painting also inevitably calls up associations to its long history. The most pervasive — and surprising — correspondence in these artists is to Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings. Pollock’s work has been seen as a dead end, too much of a signature gimmick for anyone else to adopt. But here are Pollocky swirling lines, obsessive doodles in all-over patterns, even drips.
Steven Bogart of Maynard mimics Pollock’s technique directly with webs of poured paint atop soft backgrounds polka-dotted by clouds of color. Thaddeus Beal scratches radiating geometric patterns into putrid yellow fields in a meditative, Islamic patternwork echo of Pollock’s all-over designs. Jon Petro of Worcester builds large painterly abstractions from accumulations of lots and lots of scrawled ovals. Meg Brown Payson of Freeport, Maine, pours and blots watery, semi-transparent circles of paint to create elegant designs that could be images of cells under a microscope or coffee-cup rings. It’s as if Pollock had painted restrained abstract watercolors. Providence artist Terry Rose adds ink and pigment into wet varnish so that the colors bleed out naturally, assuming delicate organic shapes. The results resemble speckled wet sand at the edge of an outgoing tide, constellations, the gleaming insides of shells, green jellyfish drifting in a silver sea, an exploding sun. The cosmic motifs remind you that Pollock’s first drip paintings in 1947 were titled Galaxy, Reflection of the Big Dipper, and Shooting Star.
Other artists create a computery look. Bostonian Reese Inman’s paintings resemble maps or heart monitor graphs spit out by ancient dot-matrix printers. The flat shapes and bars of color in New Haven artist Clint Jukkala’s work resemble blocky graphics on a staticky ’80s computer screen.
Jamaica Plain artist Laurel Sparks’s charming, stumblebum cartoony shapes recall blooming coral or flowers. Nature’s Clown (2003) resembles a masked ogre. She mixes up her materials and her application: lovely meandering lines, flat color, patterned backgrounds, glitter, frosting-like blobs, caked-on paint that looks like paint peeling off an old building. Sean Foley of Worthington, Ohio, paints abstractions with a graffiti vibe built from speedlines, thought bubbles, and wingdings orphaned from cartoons. Sarah Slavick of Jamaica Plain builds assemblages of wood tiles painted with ovals and lines of dots arranged in patterns that look like hovering orbs filled with jitterbugging cells. Sarah Walker of South Boston offers two large diptychs on paper of layers of blue and orange forms that resemble satellite views of clouds drifting above cities webbed with highways. Peter Barrett of Woodstock, New York, recalls the rigid geometry of Sol LeWitt by painting eight hexagons, one above the other, directly onto the tall narrow wall at the bottom of the museum’s stairway.
In an art world increasingly dominated by flat-screen monitors and digital printouts, it’s refreshing to see lots of good old-fashioned handmade painting. This isn’t action painting, though, or painting about the artist’s touch. It’s all formulas, control, order. It mimics the rigor and the synthetic texture of digital spaces. But there’s something a little dispiriting about art that’s determined never to get out of hand.