For lovers of hardcore abstraction, images are the emperor’s new clothes. With no picture upon which to pin story or meaning, we’re left with colors, gestures, forms, and the relationships among them. There’s no storytelling in a good abstraction — just the electric current of visual experience.
“Pat Lipsky: Twenty Years” at ACME Fine Art and “Peter Tollens: Oil and Water” at Miller Yezerski Gallery spotlight how nuance, technique, and wisdom go into making abstract paintings that command attention.
Lipsky’s show traces the evolution of the geometric stripe paintings that dominate her current work. The stripes are lush and painterly, never hard-edged, yet in most of these pieces, clean and lucid.
Less so in “Builder,” from 1999, which instead delights in revealing the artist’s process. Lipsky leaves strips of tape along the top and bottom, where she had likely intended to make clean edges but ended up preferring the seep and drip of color onto the tape. Paint streams out of bounds in this syncopated grid, dripping from one color onto the next. Lipsky scrawled “crop here” in pencil over one block, then thought better of the edit and left the notation. The piece is a record of its making.
After that, Lipsky’s paintings grow at once more restrained and more voluptuous. They share a format of long columns, with each column broken into two colors. The horizontal break rises and falls across the canvas, giving the paintings a piston-like energy.
“Red River Valley I” and “Red River Valley VI” hang side by side. Each features a limited palette of red, blue, black, and gray. Each features broad columns alternating with narrow ones. But if that’s all you see, look again.
None of the proportions are the same. Nor are any two passages of any one color. Lipsky is primarily a colorist; she builds her hues up, using up to 50 undercoats. Color relationships shift. Some ping, others throb. Everything is just off-balance enough to make you wobble — which you can see Lipsky’s hand-painted edges do, if you look with care. These are breathing, organic works, dressed in the clothing of geometric abstraction.
Finding the light in pigment
You can turn the lights off at Miller Yezerski Gallery, and Tollens’s oil paintings still glow. Using a staccato, vertical stroke and nearly powdery paint, he builds up surfaces that catch and hold the light as if it dwells within the pigment.
The buildup looks almost geologic. The paint appears to at once coat and degrade. The crusting texture and rhythm of the brush strokes buzz. “Orange — Red” burns like an ember, with traces of a red undercoat peeking out along the edges as the orange builds up in the center. In “Yellow Green Red Orange,” breaths of yellow, green, and red emerge on the outskirts, and green reads like a shadow just beneath the surface of jittery orange, thick here, just a veil there.
As a counterpoint, Tollens has several watercolors on view. We think of watercolors as luminous, but Tollens’s oils win that prize. His watercolors feel less faceted, murkier. They too feature several layers of paint, although here the strokes are long horizontals and verticals. They emphasize the sheer soak of their medium.
Looking at them is more like wandering through a fog — nothing like the crackling ambiguity that arises when encountering Tollens’s oils, which light up in their strangely matted way like earthbound angels, at once holy and prickly.
Wild, dreamy images
Alicia Tormey makes pictures. Wild, intoxicating pictures with jewel tones, spatial complexity, abstract passages, and giddy motion, which are now on view at Chase Young Gallery. Looking at them is a less contemplative process than looking at work by Lipsky and Tollens. Likewise, they are rewarding in different ways.
What Tormey has in common with those two painters is a commitment to technique. She mixes beeswax, ink, and shellac, and builds her images, in part, with a blowtorch. The ink, it appears, makes the picture; layers of wax add the illusion of distance. The heated shellac bubbles and threads, creating an organic overlay that crawls over the surface, and frames the color beneath like a stained glass window.
The artist’s floral pieces, such as “Sublimus” and “Gaudium,”are hardly still lifes. In these fierce blooms, delicate strands and wisps of jewel-like color streak like silk in the wind. They’re fiery — if fire were purple, green, or gold — and seem held together by those delicate bubbles caused by the blowtorch.
Those flowers come at you, all along the surface. Tormey’s landscapes recede dreamily into soft hazes. “Kaleidoscope” depicts a river delta fading into a pearlescent distance. The deep brown web of shellac over pale green delineates the land. Three slender ribbons in the foreground bring us right to the surface.
If we were looking through binoculars, these ribbons would be hairs in a lens. They’re that close, and they make the space of this landscape appear impossibly grand. With a technique that leans toward gorgeous, it’s easy to go too far. Most of the time, Tormey’s tones, lines, and her attention to detail work to her favor.
PAT LIPSKY: Twenty Years
At: ACME Fine Art, 450 Harrison Ave., through April 25. 617-585-9551,www.acmefineart.com
PETER TOLLENS: Oil and Water
At: Miller Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through April 21. 617-262-0550,www.milleryezerskigallery.com
ALICIA TORMEY: Organica
At: Chase Young Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through April 30. 617-859-7222,www.chaseyounggallery.comCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.