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Math made lively

October 31, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

With exceptional geometric abstractions now regularly being made by younger painters as diverse as Darcy Huebler, Bart Exposito and Yek, it was inevitable that artists of an earlier generation would begin to be reassessed. One provocative and engaging example is "June Harwood: California Hard Edge Painting Revisited, 1959-1969," a newly opened exhibition at NoHo Modern.

NoHo Modern, a mid-century furnishings emporium with aspirations to establish a serious gallery program, has assembled 17 mostly untitled paintings (and one small painted sculpture) for a debut exhibition. The paintings span the decade in which Harwood developed a mature and independent style.

As oil paint and Masonite give way to plastic-based acrylics and canvas in her work, rectilinear planes of dark and light evolve into colored fields of curved space. Following the trajectory of these paintings is rather like watching tectonic plates begin to shift, break apart and slowly bend beneath unseen forces of unstoppable pressure -- rather like the unfolding decade of the 1960s itself.

Harwood, who taught for many years at Los Angeles Valley College before her recent retirement, is a second-generation Hard Edge painter. The term -- coined in 1959 by her late husband, the eminent art critic Jules Langsner, for an older group of painters that famously included John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson -- marked the first episode of international success for postwar Los Angeles art. The aesthetic helped to spawn directions as disparate as the perceptual environments of Robert Irwin's Light and Space art and the epistemological sculptures of Bruce Nauman.

The show's earliest painting, from 1959, is a handsome vertical abstraction in flat, velvety shades of black, gray and teal blue. Perceptually, a subtle grid is established. Black and gray rectangles bisect the panel's bottom edge, while the top edges of those rectangles cut the picture in two across the center. (Think of mullions dividing a window.) Interlocking L-shapes are dominant in the top half.

The intimation of a grid plays quietly against the actual, hand-rendered shapes, few of which are strictly horizontal or vertical. Slightly canted instead, the rectangles leave slivers of white or black between them, like piercing shards of light or shadow. The surface shapes seem to jostle for position. Without benefit of traditional devices of illusionism, space opens up.

Harwood's contrapuntal geometry feels intuitive rather than mathematically precise. It yields a more organic, less mechanical visual rhythm. Like jazz, the painting gives a platform to improvisation within an aggregate of formal rules.

The latest painting in the show seems light years away -- although a mere decade has passed. A 4-foot-square field of flat, cherry-red acrylic paint is overlaid with a precise hexagonal grid of bright blue. The grid, patterned like chicken wire, seems to curve up and away to the right. Beneath it, a second hexagonal grid in a deeper shade of red bends down and away to the right. Accentuated by the saturated colors of acrylic paint, which is also light-reflective, the juxtaposition of two vivid reds with an intense blue shoots a visual buzz though the warped space. The squared painting magically intimates a curved universe.

The difference between the first and last painting is like the difference between the extemporization of a jazz ensemble and the amplified reverberation of an electric guitar. In the interim, Harwood honed her skills.

Other "sliver" paintings from the early 1960s introduce greater and more nuanced chromatic range while expanding the sense of optical space from flat shapes. Next, a group of so-called "colorform" paintings balance positive and negative shapes according to demands of color, composition and volume. "Coupled," which alternates flat waves of crimson and royal blue in sensuous, kissing curves, is reminiscent of the work of Feitelson -- a hugely influential presence in L.A. since the 1940s -- who often managed to get an almost erotic charge from purely nonfigurative means.

Next comes a series of "loop" paintings -- the strongest one a horizontal red field across which a controlled yet spontaneous sequence of black rings careens. Highly animated, almost like an abstract cartoon, the painting introduces a surprising element of optical motion that the final curved grid paintings masterfully exploit.

Harwood's work belongs to a mode of abstract painting in which gesture -- as an outward physical trace of the artist's internalized state -- is banished. Instead, impersonal surface is everything, while elements of line, shape, form and color are continuous with one another. The goal is an objectified field of dynamic tension. In Harwood's often compelling work, it's taut yet energetic.

NoHo Modern, 11225 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 505-1297, through Dec. 1. Closed Tuesdays.


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