by Mary Anne Arntzen
Through Jan. 27 at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Baltimore
For more information, visit icabaltimore.org
Flatness was a defining obsession of 20th century painting. The destruction of traditional perspectival space in the picture plane has defined everything from cubism through Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol all the way up to Takashi Murakami at the turn of the millennium, making "flat" one of the prime qualities sought in good, honest painting.
Local painter Mary Anne Arntzen explores flatness, as well as depth and transparency in SEE THROUGH, her first solo exhibition, presented by ICA Baltimore. Inspired by visual obstructions in the built environment-perforated cinder-block walls, lattices, and chain-link fences-Arntzen's canvases sometimes allude to atmospheric depth through a masterful use of color relationships, only to be negated by painterly lines weaving through the rendered volumes, disrupting the viewer's suspension of disbelief in the imagined space. Clearly well-educated in the strategies of representational painting (she received her MFA from MICA's Mount Royal School of Art in 2010), Arntzen slyly subverts the figure/ground relationship by drawing attention to the materiality of her medium. Varying line widths, generously slathered oil, and the ever-present index of the artist's process remind viewers that they are looking at a flat, opaque image despite all the implications of depth and translucency that her skillfully mixed palette can conjure.
In "Ursa Minor," a cool gray wall of square, patterned cinder blocks separates the viewer from a warm grid of muted cadmiums. The inviting background attempts to come forward but is held back by the impastoed screen. It is reminiscent of walking down St. Paul Street on a cold day and catching a glimpse of a fireplace through one of the many blocked-over ground-floor apartment windows. Adding to the sense of frustration is a sickly green line, presumably a string, wrapped around the wall, at times penetrating the ornamental cavities. The tallest painting in the show, "Heavy Heart," depicts a similar motif, with a slightly repellent violet and thinner washes of oil paint that make the wall seem unstable. In these paintings, the green line can be a bit confusing; it seems like an arbitrary, decorative afterthought x-ing out the image-until one notices the bits of cinderblock overlapping it.
I prefer the more naturalistically colored canvases in which Arntzen's uncommonly mature understanding of color relationships liberates her viscous textures and charmingly naive drawing from the burden of supporting a "solid" image. In "All Day," a slightly askew parallelogram crisscrossed by a diagonal grid suggests a cracked window casting a shadow across a reflection of the sky. The delicately executed gradient of blue really does seem a million miles away from the thick white, painterly latticework laying atop it. In "Bang Bang Bang," a diagrid spans four square canvases of varying sizes, appearing to hover in front of a seemingly neutral background that is actually a carefully scumbled surface of red and green. From a distance, these paintings can be seen as believable spaces and volumes, generally without so much as a nod to perspectival drawing. Up close, they are gorgeous built-up surfaces.
Arntzen's impastoed paint application has a certain quality in common with the mid-century action painters, but rather than delivering an impression of confident machismo, her hand imparts a sense of carefully considered, almost timid hesitation. Here, the gesture does not boastfully celebrate her authorship; it humbly anticipates its own critique. The hand of the artist displays less hubris and more vulnerability.
One could easily speculate that Arntzen's work owes a great deal to the influence of Tomma Abts, the German-born abstract painter who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2006. Abts also plays with line, building up the painted surface in the process of overlapping and tucking away zigzags. But while Abts' work can feel sterile and impassive, Arntzen's paintings are messy and clearly full of emotional revisions, second-guessed observations, and dedicated mixing and remixing of colors. Abts' canvases seem cold, but Arntzen's seem calculated in the best possible way.
If contemporary painting were an awkward high school dance, with representational neo-expressionism standing against one wall, staring across the room at geometric abstraction against the other, Arntzen's work would stand in the middle of the dancefloor, self-consciously staring at its untied shoes. One of my favorite paintings is a tiny composition of gloppy brown triangles. Its title, "Cardboard," betrays that it is in fact more than just a pattern. It is a fitting capitulation of Arntzen's work. Hung inconspicuously amongst other small canvases, humble in scale and ambition, the piece transfigures its subject matter-the most ordinary of mass-produced materials-through the artist's careful observation. Then again, the piece is perhaps less "about" cardboard; it is about paint: glorious, malleable oil paint, full of possibilities in all its obvious flatness and infinite depth.