MARCH 31 — MAY 19, 2019
I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh. As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them. I am out in the open and above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected. They are going to some point true and unproven.
—Rita Dove, Geometry
MATHEMATICIANS, SCIENTISTS, ARTISTS, all grapple with the question of space—its vastness, how to understand, measure, and depict it. Rita Dove’s poem suggests a theorem that blows apart the space where our ideas reside until any old notion we previously held explodes and flutters away. Artists have been addressing the question of space for ages. Traditional painting saw the canvas as a window into another place, giving the viewer glimpses of what life was like in the artists’ real or imagined world. Then Modernism like a nanny checking a rambunctious child, pulled back space to explore the surface itself. The Greeks freed the kouros figure from its stone block and sculpture took its first stiff step forward until thousands of years later we have the explosive wall sculpture of Frank Stella blowing out from the walls like Dove’s poetic house, all energy and color. The artists in “To Some Point True and Unproven,” Meg Atkinson and Ben Pranger, have taken up the challenge to tame space and make it a subject of their work. Meg Atkinson courses the tension between the two impulses of flatness and depth. Ben Pranger also excites tension in his work — between the structure that holds his work together, and the emergent “fluid forms” of his sculpture.
Meg Atkinson’s active and colorful paintings call to mind the bulbous forms, juxtapositions and chance layering of 1970s and 80s New York City subway graffiti, or the vivid, controlled abstraction in the paintings of Stuart Davis. Both the graffiti artists and Davis layer forms upon each other, creating interacting imagery that enlivens the surface. Graffiti forms are not generally contained—graffiti artists didn’t consider the edges of the subway car or wall they were painting on, so the imagery floats and expands in an infinite space, but the shapes, often defined by contrasting outlines weave around each other in a Gordian knot, creating the sense of a writhing movement. Davis often defines the plane of his canvas with a bold color contrasting with the forms that seem to rise and fall above it. The active forms are sharply defined by their honed edges and weave their way amongst each other. They interact with the contrasting background plane, while enlivening the surface with their color tensions. Davis’ work is all color and shape interactions but in a contained and controlled area. It is with the color tensions and their implied visual movement where Atkinson intersects with both the graffiti artists and Davis.
An unapologetic tinkerer, Atkinson often revisits her canvases. A completed painting with a static grid becomes a base layer for another iteration. She may begin to add planes of color that create depth. Further visual interest comes from contrasting colored shapes, often in biomorphic counterpoint to the geometric objects that lay beneath. There is the visual magic, the interplay of shapes and colors creates a recognizable depth. The biomorphic shapes frolic around near the surface, while the geometry that lay beneath rises and recedes, pushing the shapes that lie on top of them around. The whole composition is a very carefully choreographed dance of rhythmic movement fed by color, shape, and value; a lava lamp of color globules pulsing and groping, amoeba-like, finding their own space and changing as you look. Each painting taken as a whole becomes its own self-contained universe, as fascinating as observing the private lives of microorganisms under a microscope.
Ben Pranger’s sculptures protrude from the wall like the organic growth of an insect hive or seem to grow from the base like a termite mound. The work gives the impression that it is still in the process of growth, like an expanding yeast, changing imperceptibly with each viewing. As with a hive or a hollow in a tree, the empty space is an integral part of Pranger’s sculptural language. Like Lee Bontecou, whose steel armatures and canvas skins defined and embraced negative space, Pranger controls the void, because what is surrounded and what surrounds are equally important. A hole in Pranger’s work is both a shape and a negative space pulling the viewer in. It is a compositional element that creates visual energy that pushes your eye around from one place to the other.
Pranger’s wall reliefs can also read like a drone view of ancient Mesoamerican ruins. They build out the void with stepped pyramidal shapes that advance and recede from their empty spaces very much like Bontecou’s lines that define specific shapes. For Bontecou the lines always lead you toward, then away from the all-important void. Pranger’s graduated steps lead you into and out of his wall pieces, all the while drawing your eye to and away from the blackness of the shapes. These are then surrounded by the textural landscape of a matrix of wood bits or paper pulp that provides the foundational matter and visual cohesion. It is a monumental gesture, both architectural and organic; both hard edged and soft, each informing the other. The busy galleys of animated bits of matter keep the whole from flying apart into nothingness, as the points of the stars are defined by the emptiness of the universe.
Atkinson and Pranger have constructed visual languages that communicate with each other. There is a call and response between Pranger’s three-dimensional sculptures and Atkinson’s two-dimensional paintings. Both play with positive and negative; with what moves forward and what falls back, with what remains empty and what is full. Both are designers of their spaces, building stages and platforms for their harmonic dances of color and shape. What is also evident is that space and the movement within it continues to be a problem worthy of infinite interest and investigation. Their ultimate destination may still be unproven, but Atkinson and Pranger bring us another step closer “to some point true.”