Floor van de Velde uses light to skew our senses. Her enchanting exhibition “Score for a Color Field” at 17 Cox, the alternative gallery in Beverly, glows in the dark. Van der Velde fits into the tradition of painting with light pioneered in the 1960s by James Turrell and Dan Flavin.
Paint is to light as matter is to spirit. Paint is earthy, sensual, messy, tactile; light is ethereal and untouchable. Paint exists, in part, to copy light. Light, and its delicious intangibility, is the real thing.
Van de Velde’s most ambitious piece, “Vibrant Divide,” features seven fluorescent acrylic pink and orange panels strung from the ceiling one behind the next under ultraviolet black lights.
In the dark, the panels have a foggy glow; the colors intensify only at the edges and along diagonal bars etched into every other panel. These distinct geometric markers shape the light. From the front, its most captivating angle, the piece is the picture of contained spaciousness – an airy box of orange, extending endlessly backward, with luminous, floating bars crisscrossing into a misty infinity.
For “Pattern Is Movement,” the other large installation on view, the artist has propped five white planks against a white wall and projected a pattern of horizontal stripes upon them. The planks cast wedging shadows, like pleats. Hot pink and blue striations pulsate against a more subdued green-gold bar, which seems to recede as the blue emerges and the pink pops like a jack-in-the-box.
The three create a buzzy, dense interplay of background, middle ground, and foreground. Blink, and the whole thing jitters as your eyes adjust. The psychedelic experience makes a wild contrast to the more contemplative “Vibrant Divide,” which also offers more variation in light intensity, and feels like a step toward even bigger and brighter projects for van de Velde.
James Sterling Pitt’s sweetly humble show of drawing/painting/sculpture hybrids at Steven Zevitas Gallery features fairly small works made of carved wood and acrylic paint. Most of them have white borders with colored lines bumping and intersecting within them, often with two or three layers to add dimension. Their lines waver like those in an arch New Yorker cartoon; their edges are as pleasingly white as confectioner’s sugar.
“Untitled (Sand/Sea – Alameda)” contains within that white rectangle a front grid in yellow beige and a rear one in sunny blue. The grids match up only loosely, so blue peeks through yellow squares; they look syncopated. These pieces have a low-key charm, but the tensile possibilities of the lines never quite take off.
Occasionally, Pitt swaps out his carved wooden lines for wires strung with little painted wooden tabs, as in “Untitled (‘Bittersweet’ – 11-3-12),” which features imperfect orange circles dotting the wire. These pieces feel frothier and freer. The dots seem to dance and quiver; the wire slopes haphazardly from one side to the other. It looks like an abacus made by a first-grader, and has a freshness that Pitt seems to strive for, but not quite achieve, with his exclusively wooden works.
Pitt’s pieces attempt to capture events in his life, so you might say they have an underground narrative that we’re not entirely privy to. Background materials mention an encounter the artist had with a white peacock and later appearances of the bird’s image that led him to ascribe meaning to it. But filtering that meaning through abstract art makes it difficult for us to catch it on the other end. We can only look at the works through the rubric of art.
Making most of minimalism
There’s a similar process at work for Penn Young, whose show “What I Owe,” is the first of two successive solo shows at Samson. Young offers an array of minimalist sculptures and abstract expressionist paintings, and a few other tidbits, along with a primer for each piece. While helpful, sometimes Young’s explanations detail so many layers of meaning they feel like a crutch – as if he doesn’t trust the art to speak for itself.
The minimalist sculptures are most effective. “A Congenial Awareness 12,” Young tells us, is an attempt to convey “the quality of being present without demanding recognition or acknowledgment.” It’s a black, squarish pillar that does not immediately demand attention, but holds its own.
“An Uncertain Presence,” an upright plank with a second set perpendicular on its face and slanting slightly down its front, was made in the same spirit, but then Young painted it red, and it lost that quality of not demanding attention. Red can do that. No matter – the color, and the unexpected slant of the front plank, imbue the piece with gravity and spunk.
But the painting “Swiss Allow in Jews From Vichy France” casts back into history to ask questions about Switzerland’s neutrality, and, the artist tells us, segues into a family story a teacher of his once told. Can we see that in the washes and drips of blue, yellow, and rusty orange? Should we? More likely, all the conceptual baggage interferes with the aesthetic experience.
James Sterling Pitt: The White Peacock Sings
At: Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 7. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com
Penn Young: What I Owe
At: Samson, 450 Harrison Ave., through Nov. 23.
617-357-7177, www.samsonprojects.comCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.