Maximal minimalism

Jane Masters and Jacqueline Ott's 'Fractured/Captured' at the Chazan Gallery
By GREG COOK  |  February 19, 2014

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CRISP AND SWEET A detail from Masters' Groovy Series.

Can art be too perfect? That’s one of the questions I found myself pondering at “Fractured/Captured,” an exhibit by local artists Jane Masters and Jacqueline Ott at the Wheeler School’s Chazan Gallery (228 Angell St, Providence, through February 27).

The show is a smart pairing of two artists working at the crossroads of digital design and the handmade, the intersection of minimalism and bewitching patterning.

Minimalism of the 1960s and “Pattern and Decoration” art of the ’70s were often based on repeating motifs, but where Minimalism was all about paring down, “Pattern and Decoration” was about ornamented maximalism via fabric, wallpaper, and floral designs spiced by a feminist embrace of lace and quilting and other traditionally women’s crafts.

Back then, they seemed like two camps that could never come together. But as Minimalism has grown less puritanical and contemporary decoration has been suffused with a streamlined Modernism (think, say, fresh Ikea designs), their trend lines have slanted ever closer together until the art in “Fractured/Captured” can arrive without a bump.

In Masters’s previous work, she scratched out wiggling, overlapping, vibrating white lines out of boards covered with black ink. They often look like designs made from Slinkys. She had sheets of steel cut into patterns resembling lace made by her grandmother. She burned holes through paper to create dot-to-dot, 19th-century-style, leafy borders around wisecracking slogans: “Starving Artist,” “Obsessive/Compulsive,” “Customer Driven,” “Made in China,” “Don’t Try This at Home.”

Here Masters’s patterns become digital prints or etched metal. She gangs them up into grids. In Groovy Series (silver and hematite version) (2013), she chemically etches nine brass plates with the same pattern of circles and lines that look like interlaced flowers and leafy stems drawn with a Spirograph. She orients them in different directions like squares of stainless steel wallpaper, catching the light and accented by one at the center tinted cranberry red. The piece goes down crisp and sweet.

Masters’s Diana Series (The Jewel Thief Version) (2014) is a single digital print on 12 sheets of metallic paper, hung in a grid, but with different sides up, to create a pattern of seemingly knit globes, Spirograph wheels, rings within rings, and beaded-necklace helixes. It recalls knitting and macramé and lacy doilies, in handsome earthy hues and some pale blue.

“The hand is still at the center of my work,” Masters said in a biographical video recorded in 2012 as part of Joseph Chazan’s “NetWorks” project showcasing Rhode Island artists. “In the computer, I work really hard to actually try to preserve that feeling of handmade.”

Part of the thrill in Masters’s art has been recognizing her feats of human skill. It’s akin to watching an acrobat walking a highwire. It’s impressive not just because of the grace and beauty of the performance, but because you sense so many possible mistakes were avoided with such panache. Masters loses something in the translation between her original designs and their digital or etched execution. Her patterns are as lush and dazzling as ever, but the works seem the result of machines, and we expect machines to be precise. The patterns are so perfectly — perhaps too perfectly — rendered that the amazing deftness of Masters’s hands gets upstaged.

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