Modernist abstraction is usually seen in formalist terms — art for art's sake, devoid of outside referents. This idea, tirelessly promulgated after World War II by critic Clement Greenberg, followed the traditional Western preference for the ideal and abstract over the messy and mortal; it also fit nicely into the new secular, suburban consumerist world. By the 1970s, however, such aesthetic purism was seen as patriarchal puritanism by dissident postmodernists. The artist and writer Deborah Koppman (whose essay "Thou Art" critiques PoMo with equal rigor), asked, in Reclaiming the Spiritual in Art: "What if the spiritual were defined in terms of immanence rather than transcendence? What if physicality were seen as embodying spirituality, rather than as being separate from it? What if the divine were believed to be immanent in nature, and if the earth were conceived of as a physical and spiritual being, possessed of intelligence and wisdom?"
Shock of the old! Abstraction began a century ago with utopian motivations, as avant-garde artists sought to create personal yet universal aesthetic religions. Metaphysical Abstraction, a show featuring works by well-known local artists Jamie Brunson, Freddy Chandra, David Ivan Clark, Lori del Mar, David O. Johnson, David King, Keira Kotler, Michelle Mansour, Jenn Shifflet, Hadi Tabtabai, and Alex Zecca, attempts to correct the intellectual and philosophical denaturing of abstraction over the past three generations by expropriating undermanned Formalist-held territory. The show's small catalogue, with essays by art historian Mark Levy, is helpful in explaining context. While curators Brunson and Mansour find formal commonalities in the art — "luminosity and atmosphere, structure, spatial depth, and a sense of location; shifts from microcosmic to macrocosmic scale; formal elements including line and color; layering and repetition; refined surface qualities; and meticulous facture" — they also see the works acting as portals between different realms — as liminal, transitional spaces, or spiritual catalysts.
A few highlights: Brunson's shimmering painting "Weave," its nearly invisible lattice a presence without center or boundary; Clark's landscape paintings on stainless steel, all horizon and sky, emerging from lengthy painting and sanding, deposition and removal; Johnson's minimalist sculptures, Zen paradoxes — heavy concrete cubes surmounted by fragile, luminous handles; King's collages, linking microcosm and macrocosm; Mansour's iconic depiction of interpenetrating matter and energy; Shifflet's dreamlike dawn-of-time pondscapes; Tabatabai's immaculately crafted grids of wood, thread, paint, and wax; and Zecca's colored-ink mandalas. Koppman, again: "To be human means to be embodied; this life, this body, this earth, is in itself sacred." Metaphysical Abstraction runs through November 29 at Berkeley Art Center (1275 Walnut St., Berkeley). 510-644-6893 or BerkeleyArtCenter.org
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