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Strictly Formal 

In art, as elsewhere, ideas come and go. But in art, they don't really go, they morph, and nowhere is that more true than in abstract art. Although postmodernism was once thought to be the final nail in abstraction's coffin, it turned out to be yet another of its nine lives, as we see in this Brave New Abstraction show at Steve Martin. Curated by Dan Tague, who gained notoriety for curating his spectacular Post-Suburbia show at The Pickery earlier this year, Abstraction features some of the same emerging artists, and some related postmodern sensibilities.

But where Post-Suburbia was big, freewheeling and flamboyant, this show is formal and constrained even as it alludes to similar mass media-inspired themes. Which almost seems like a contradiction at first glance. After all, the minimalist '60s and the abstract expressionist '50s were the glory years of formal abstraction, and like most modern art movements, they reflected an inner-directed quest to create new forms with lives of their own. Postmodernism, by contrast, is all about quoting or commenting on the culture at large, a process that denies that anything in art can ever again be new or have a life of its own.

Michael Greathouse's colorful sculptures are a case in point. At first they look almost architectural or industrial, like pop renditions of geometric Bauhaus designs or whimsical machine parts. In fact, they were inspired by the virtual environments of video and computer games, things that only existed in the virtual world. So rather than idealized new forms in the sense of Brancusi or Henry Moore, they are distillations of pop culture fantasies. Digitronica, for instance, suggests a stylish anti-matter substation, or maybe an orbital bionic lounge reserved for X-Men.

Another approach is seen in the work of Srdan Loncar, whose abstract sculptures were made from photographs, which he says "fuse the space of image and object." Or maybe "confuse" is more like it. L.U.K.A. is like an extraterrestrial Easter egg with a skin cobbled from fuzzy snapshots. It rests on a base that seems to reflect its underside, but this too is collaged from photos cobbled together to resemble a reflection of its underside. So even this is an illusion, a mirage of a mirage.

Tague's own stuff is very formal, but touches on some of the same childhood-related themes explored in Suburbia. Yet, as with much postmodernism, it helps to know what's what. In fact, those thin blue lines arranged as stark rectangular grids, mazes and circuits were surgically excised from sheets of loose-leaf paper. Curiously delicate, even Oriental in tone, works like Narrow Logic and Vortex quote earlier forms of minimalism while coming across as obsessive, like a mad scientist's latest stab at creation.

Pop culture rears its gorgon head again in Tim Frisby's Unpainted by Numbers, a painting of ghostly blue lines and numbers on a stark white field. This alludes to an especially unreal aspect of the real world -- a paint-by-numbers seascape with outlines of sailing ships. So it's yet another hall-of-mirrors reflection of a reflection. No less circular logic appears in Jeffrey Forsythe's Equal Opportunity, a painting of a cluster of densely packed blue spheres, some big, some little. Up close you see their distinct forms. Step back and mobius patterns circle back on themselves like DNA spirals, theories of quantum physics or the complex molecular structure of radioactive blueberries. What does it all mean? Like much of this show, it seems to refer to man-made things that assume autonomous loopy lives of their own in the endless echo chambers of techno-space.

Which contrasts with the work of John Davis. Or does it? His Media Painting series suggest nothing so much as page layouts from computer publishing programs fused with printed circuit boards. But this too is a circular idea when we consider that page layouts are spun through circuit boards any number of times before they finally emerge as ink on paper. Which synchs neatly with postmodern theory.

The irony here is that by laboriously hand crafting their own versions of mass-media themes these artists end up mythologizing the virtual world. In this, they recall the New Guinea cargo cults that made talismans and fetishes out of anything having to do with Western modes of transportation, hence their efforts are curiously mystical, dream fragments and fetishes from the electronic backwash of an increasingly wired society.

click to enlarge Circular logic: Jeffrey Forsythe's Equal Opportunity shows how man-made things can assume lives of their own.
  • Circular logic: Jeffrey Forsythe's Equal Opportunity shows how man-made things can assume lives of their own.
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