One sign that a group exhibition is significant is that it changes the way you perceive works of art that you thought you knew. At the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design, "Step Into Liquid" is a significant show.
I've been looking at (and enjoying) James Hayward's paintings for more than 20 years, but I've never quite considered them in the way they appear here. Otis' guest curator-in-residence, Dave Hickey, has assembled paintings by five artists -- Jane Callister, Pia Fries, Michael Reafsnyder and David Reed are the others -- whose work reanimates a major American postwar tradition. In the 1950s and 1960s, fluid forms of abstract painting, from the drips of Jackson Pollock and the sponged puddles of color by Helen Frankenthaler to the pours of Morris Louis, had asserted a continuity between nature and art.
The paintings in "Step Into Liquid" pick up the thread while severing the continuity. Hayward's paintings have the authoritative power and hypnotic grace of the surface of the sea, the sheer face of a mountain cliff or the sweep of a plain of grass -- yet without any recourse to illusion, metaphor or representation. Think of them as cultural equivalents rather than natural embodiments.
Hayward's four paintings date from 2005, and each uses the same format -- a vertical canvas, 6 or 7 feet high and slightly narrower than it is tall. One is black, one yellow, one white and one a green so dark as to appear almost black. Along the edges of the canvases, under-painted layers of other hues can be glimpsed.
The thick oil paint is applied in deliberate strokes of a regular, if not quite uniform, length (7 or 8 inches). The brush marks indicate use of a medium-width brush, and the regularity of the application has a repetitive quality that borders on ritualistic. The paint strokes are laid on in every conceivable direction -- except, notably, horizontal (like a landscape) or vertical (like a figure). The size and scale of the canvas and the brush marks gently guide you into a comfortable position in front of the painting. They carve out a physical space of contemplation, from which these gorgeous paintings feel vast, unfathomable and in perpetual flux.
They're oceanic without the ocean.
Hayward, 62, and Reed, 59, are the show's elder statesmen. Fries, who was born in Switzerland and works in Dusseldorf, adds an international element. Callister and Reafsnyder, both born in the 1960s, are two of the most engaging younger painters working in Southern California right now. The show packs a lot into a modest space.
In the fall of 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the landmark survey exhibition "California Hard Edge Painting," Hickey organized an Otis show of geometric abstraction. "Step Into Liquid" is its complement, focusing on wet, fluid abstraction rather than crisp geometries. Reed's luxurious paintings are the pivot between the two shows: He mixes oil and resin to crash Baroque waves of translucent paint against hard-edged rectangles, like flowing electrons moving through the windows of a computer program.
Callister's exceptional recent paintings represent a slight shift in her work. All three miraculously evoke the conjunction of land and sea, the space of a primordial shoreline where timeless stability and constant vacillation continuously trade places. Yet none is in the least descriptive, in the manner of a traditional landscape painting. A warm, fleshy pink ground is interrupted by pours, puddles, splashes and clumps of abstract color-shapes, which appeal to a sense of visual tactility.
Reafsnyder continues to update the signature motifs of modern alienation to the monumental scale of mass culture. For example, "Slippy" is a large, dark painting in which indigo acrylic has been swiped with a squeegee as a background. Then, great swaths of glossy color are smeared, splashed and dripped across the surface, while a bright orange smiley face grins out at you. Signs of pleasure come in a variety of guises, and here a visual overload of paint does the talking. Following Reafsnyder's marvelous one-man survey that closed recently at the Las Vegas Art Museum, the Otis show gives rich context to his quirky work.
Fries' paintings are the exhibition's weak link. Each is an inventory of paint application methods, from thick wedges and troweled-on oil to skinny squiggles squeezed straight from the tube (it looks like silly string), often in pastel hues and always on pure white panels. Disconcertingly, embedded within the paint are silk-screened prints that appear to be tangled piles of crepe-paper ribbon.
The point seems to be that printing fits with the other techniques because, in a world characterized by reproduction, our assumptions that direct application of paint embodies uniqueness and reveals authentic feeling are false.
True enough, but the idea is long-established (not least by Fries' teacher, Gerhard Richter), and these paintings don't have adequate visual appeal to sustain them.
"Step Into Liquid" features just 17 paintings yet accomplishes more than most exhibitions twice its size. Come on in; the liquidity is fine.
`Step Into Liquid'
Where: Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays
Ends: Jan. 28
Contact: (310) 665-6905, www.otis.edu