Now entering its sixth year in a Watertown storefront, Room 83 Spring continues to insist local artists challenge their own artistic boundaries — and ours. To this end, directors Ellen Wineberg and Cathleen Daley invited painter Monique Johannet to guest-curate works by six abstract painters with Boston connections.
Johannet views 20th century abstraction as an evolving family of practices intertwined with art’s changing history and artists’ personal timelines. Among the artists, who range widely in age and sensibility, she has introduced the mid-century paintings of an unsung post-war Boston abstractionist who, serendipitously, happens to have been her aunt.
The interspersed works address each other in several different voices at once: constructivist, conceptualist, feminist, social activist and postmodern-ironic — with each voice respecting and employing abstraction. Diane Teubner and Jean Knapp prioritize order, symmetry and repetition in their geometric patterning and non-objective designs. Tongue-in-cheek, John Robert Roy’s fine-art sculptures masquerade as textile. Robin Dash uses the authority of color to contain explosive form, while Katherine Desjardins harnesses a chaos of writhing forms in a space and Liza Bingham’s color barely coheres into purpose. Paint is primary for all.
Knapp’s “Highwire” offers new life to the lines of 1950s beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Constantly risking absurdity / and death / whenever he / performs / above the head of his audience / the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making…”
Two large rectangles, a heavy dark-red one to the upper left and a narrower yellow one to the center right, dominate the bright red-orange ground, which is bisected by two intersecting white lines. The left-hand rectangle rests on the horizon line, positioned tangentially to the outer “walls” of its quadrant, while its lower right corner barely makes contact with the perimeter of a large, central blue disc. The yellow rectangle hangs loosely from the right-hand horizon, and its lower left corner also reaches out to the blue. Below the horizon, the centered disc balances on the point of a thin white line projecting upward from the bottom of the canvas. Which rectangle to favor is uncertain, but it’s clearly the disc that’s doing the choosing. The balance of primaries along with the brilliant complementary contrast of blue disc on red-orange ground make this an indelible image.
Dash’s current work re-appropriates her own earlier gestural paintings from several years back. In the renewed encounter, she sacrifices the old for the new. In one untitled painting, she, too, divides her canvas into large shapes in strong primary colors. But unlike the delicate tangents connecting Knapp’s idealized forms, the irregular bulges, points and concavities in Dash’s shapes threaten engorgement, engulfment, even extinction. In what seems a tug-of-war for control, she employs the lexicon of organic abstraction by painting over her once-prized expanses of spatters, drips and whips of liquid color.