New York

William Giles

Allan Frumkin Gallery

William Giles’s debut with the Allan Frumkin Gallery is surely one of the strongest shows of the New York winter season. In his offering of twenty-four canvases finished over the past year, Giles presents a particular kind of abstract invention that felicitously harmonizes two distinct approaches to pictorial formulation.

First, each of the paintings makes use of forms which are, or appear to be, capable of mathematical definition. These forms are on the whole relatively simple ones: broad stripes, segments of circular bands, wide spirals, triangles. They are overlaid and intertwined in careful arrangements which tend to thicken and settle in the middle of the picture. These configurations are invariably seen against regular plain grounds, usually white, but on occasion several neutral warm greys. Sprinkled over the pictures throughout are numerous mathematical notations, numbers giving the degrees of arcs, greek letters, X and Y co-ordinate designations, and the like. In some cases, such as the arc-degree measurements, the notation apparently does correspond to its associated form; in others, not. All of the elements inventoried above are painted with the utmost precision and regularity and in no case is there modulation of any flat color area. The colors themselves, the primaries and black supplemented with yellows, violets, oranges, purples, and green, are intense and brilliant, seen against the light grounds. In a way, Giles’s forms have some family resemblance to Al Held’s and the notational symbols of various kinds employed all suggest stencils or are crisp block-letter.

Now the complexity and indeed main interest of this reasonably familiar set-up lies in the fact that through adjacent reverberatory forms, abrupt color changes in what reads as a larger continuous form, apparent over-lappings and the general confinement of notational symbols within a single color area, the figure-ground relationships are highly illusionistic. The suggestion is that the bands and curves have some thickness themselves and some degree of spatial separation, at least at points. Secondarily then, it is an abstract trompe l’oeil which Giles constructs, garnished with the symbols already described.

The artist’s precise forms and crisscrossing layered grids recall, somewhat bizarrely, the illusionistic works of Harnett and other 19th-century American painters who made quite a specialty of the letter-holder still life, in which mementos of various kinds are “artlessly” tucked into the crossing tapes of the wall-mounted holder. The difference between the Harnett and Giles systems, if you will, is that Giles is not concerned with either the rendering of specific textures or with any kind of light and atmosphere illusionism. Otherwise, the structural principles and even the compositional effects, considered per se, are remarkably similar. I am not suggesting any historical dependency, but rather the fortuitous reemergence of a kind of space and formal structure, once an engrossing feature of American painting, but which has been long preempted by the strong movement away from volumetric form and specifically delimited illusionistic space in the present century. Giles’s painting in a way demonstrates that the viability of this way of making a picture is not dependent on an involvement with the “figurative” in a general sense, or the figure as an image, although “figurative” and figure painters have, in their concern with this way of seeing, recently antedated the interests of painters committed to abstract or conceptual form. Giles’s successful employment of this mode makes it clear that a broad stylistic shift is at work, a shift not unrelated to the “thinginess” of the primary structure movement. It is evident, I think, that the result of the popular abstract modes, Abstract Expressionism, geometric abstraction, and color painting, has been a rapid crystallization of decorative formulae rather more often than the achievement of an heroic style, as was hoped. The point of view that Giles’s work represents may, perhaps, not anticipate any ultimately higher batting average, but it does reveal, in twofold fashion, that the well established abstract modes have proven far more vulnerable to spiritual adulteration than was once thought possible, and that a three-dimensional illusionism, however relentlessly specific, need not propel any artist, regardless of imagery, into a parasitical relationship with the art of the past.

Dennis Adrian