In her first solo show at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Martha Tuttle went back to the roots of materialist philosophy. For “The Dance of Atoms,” the artist framed her ambitions with the words of Lucretius, the Roman student of Epicurean philosophy who converted its tenets of atomistic materialism into poetry in the first century BCE. In her work, Tuttle replaces each of the traditionally essential elements of easel painting—stretcher, canvas, and pigment—with a thoughtfully selected doppelgänger. Here, seven rectangular pieces, each thirty-two inches tall by twenty-five inches wide, occupied two long walls. In each, combinations of wool, linen, and wood passed as painted abstractions, at least momentarily. Arrangement 1, 2019, sets a large field of hand-spun wool against smaller quadrilaterals of translucent linen. A stretcher bar, darkened with a blowtorch, runs behind them diagonally, from the right edge to the bottom, assisting more with the compositional balance of the resulting image than with the structural integrity of the work. Instead of using acrylics or oils that have been carefully calibrated for consistent color by paint manufacturers, Tuttle sources her pigments from natural materials: sheep’s wool, which she weaves into cloth, or minerals, which she mixes to produce a range of subtle gray tones.
Two larger, more complex arrangements anchored the shorter gallery walls. For Milestone, 2019, Tuttle arranged three canvases into a composition punctuated by a small quartz stone, cleverly suspended between the two lower stretched textiles, thereby emphasizing their proximity. (Elsewhere in the piece, a fragment of slag covered in aluminum was implanted directly into a textile at the apex of a woolen peak.) Across the room, small rocks were also suspended between two of the four stretched pieces that made up Separated Column (After Noguchi), 2019; the different sizes of the sandwiched quartz chunks made one of the components tilt away slightly, shrewdly calling into question the straight hang of the rest of the show.
Tuttle reintroduces old questions about the origins of forms and pigments and embeds them into the discourse around abstract painting. But the sources of an artist’s abstractions—whether the physical stuff that makes up the work or the pictorial inspiration that yields a composition—are only part of the resulting painting’s life cycle. What happens to an abstraction after its supposed completion? As we have repeatedly seen, even pictures far removed from figuration can be repurposed for nefarious ends: Abstract Expressionism became a vector for US propaganda during the Cold War, and nonobjective art has been recruited as a pacifying decorative scheme for the antechambers of corporate power. But new forms of abstraction can be directed toward progressive ends, too. Tuttle’s own work was folded into this process when the poet-philosopher Claudia Rankine chose one of the artist’s assemblages for the cover of her recent play and book The White Card (2019). In an interview for the ArtsEmerson blog, Rankine explained her choice: “I was drawn in by the meeting of different materials in the making of the whole. . . . The encounter of these materials mimicked for me encounters between people where their differences remained despite the warmth and laughter that might begin our coming together.” Tuttle’s arrangements participate in the hard work of reconfiguring the world. As Lucretius would remind us, “Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.” In other words, we already have the materials we need; now we have to rearrange them.