“Made in Philadelphia 2”

The problem with writing about group shows is that one feels compelled to fabricate some catchall generalization with which to categorize the works beingshown. Yet the very diversity of the artists represented in “Made in Philadelphia 2” forestalls any tidy ordering of information. About all one can say is that the works happen to be made in Philadelphia—beyond that it is a matter of individual sensibilities which reveals less about Philadelphia as a particular art-making location than about the heterogeneity of the overall art scene.

And yet perhaps the word to use here is homogeneity. For the artists in the show offer little deviation from what has already been accepted and at times exhaustively explored within the art world. It is not that the particular works are any less interesting than much of what is shown in New York. It is rather that what one sees is the repetition, with individual variation, of themes that one has previously encountered—a phenomenon prevalent throughout the art world at the moment. One wonders, then, how adequately this art represents the Philadelphia art scene, or whether there isn’t some more exciting art going on.

To begin with there are Warren Rohrer’s horizontal rows built from tiny, repeating brushmarks of color which evoke the quiet romanticism of a simple landscape through by now conventionalized means. There is a kind of abstracted impressionist feeling to Rohrer’s paintings, as if the direct naturalistic references had been subtracted from a later Monet and the scintillating strokes of color reordered into a patterned equivalent of gentle countryside. A more contemporary comparison might be made to Agnes Martin, for it is the holism of the image which predominates. As with Martin, parts are less like details than threads which weave into the fabric of the whole. In Atmosphere I, for example, beaded lines of color move slowly across the surface, curving slightly downward at one end to close off infinite extension. One’s eye travels in repeating rotation back again to the empty space on the opposite side, before the lines’ beginning. A scumbled off-white background brushes around and over the rows as if to mute their separateness and fuse them into a single rhythmic motion. The order of the dots of whitened color shifts from line to line in a seemingly random manner so that what becomes important is the sameness within the variation. One’s eye focuses not on the individual markings, but rather on their continual merging with and into the whole. Since color here is minimized to regular jewel-like dabs within an overall monochrome, it reinforces the repetition of the drawing by denying any specific hierarchy of focal points beyond a generalized sensation of color vibration. When, however, Rohrer concentrates intense hues in clearly defined areas, the result is more akin to color-field painting, and the differences in brushmarks become more a distraction than an adjunct to the whole. In Amish 4, for instance, a rectangle of alternating bands of red brown, purple, and green is centered in a blue green field. One finds oneself reading the painting traditionally in terms of color to color and shape to shape—even though one realizes that the surface is a network of rows and rows of squiggles and dabs of paint and that the vibrating intensity of the hues is the effect of the optical mixture of the tiny strokes of color. The whole refuses to stabilize into oneness. “So how do I paint?” writes Rohrer in the catalogue for the show. “Stroke / stroke.” At times his brushed “wanderings” merge as in his poetry —a “Wall of silvered stalks extend from ochre to green.” At times they remain separate—“Stalk and stalk.”

A different, although equally established, approach to painting, as process rather than evocation, is evident in Bill Richard’s works included in the same show. In his Magic Slate paintings the matte green surface has been sanded down in places to leave a random pattern of white flecks and black markings which expose the layer of paint beneath the green. One’s interest in these paintings is not in the final image, which appears arbitrary. Instead one concentrates on the process of obscuring and revealing. Yet at times one’s sense of this process becomes confused as the blots of black emerging from the green consolidate into seemingly definitive gestures. And as gestures, the marks are gratuitous, ostentatiously purporting to a significance they do not have. When, however, the marks remain quite simply marks, they refer one back to the chance of their making. They serve as traces, remnants of a system of building and taking away. Content becomes intertwined with fabrication so that what appears is less important in itself than as an indicator of a way of working.

For Gerald Nichols, on the other hand, it is the optical effects of variations in pattern, scale, texture and color which provide the subject matter of painting. The visual interest in most of his works depends on the figure-ground reversal inherent in his checkerboard design of two contrasting elements. Oppositions of raw to thickly painted canvas or of small squares on one canvas to large ones on another are the obvious plays within the givens of this framework. While both the paint and the canvas are emphasized as material, it is the pattern which predominates. What one looks at becomes a demonstration of well-known possibilities of design.

The other five artists exhibited in the show indicate a variety of options within the limitation of a more idiosyncratic art. Tom Hatten’s series of double portraits of himself and his wife is like random pages from a personal diary which highlight changes in perception of self and others without providing the transition in between. The meaning of the symbols Hatten uses, in particular the delineated rectangles which float in the indeterminate background, remains obscure. While one senses the psychological undercurrents in Hatten’s semi-expressionist depictions, one does not become involved. The series serves as a record of a personal evolution, as a document of art as a kind of therapeutic means of self-interpretation, which the viewer only witnesses but does not understand.

Somewhat similarly Eleanor Hubbard’s childlike paintings present the conventions of a private fantasy world into which the viewer can only tangentially enter. Perhaps because her tiny images are worked over and over with thick paint, sometimes smudged, sometimes scratched into, they seem completed illustrations of the artist’s fancies rather than triggers of possibility for the viewer. In contrast, David Kettner uses intensity as a mystical device. His Halo series with the minute stylus markings spiraling inward to the center might function as mandalas. Yet one feels that, although one could concentrate on the images as devices into meditation, the geometric patterns themselves are the result of a highly personalized spiritual experience. While one may recognize a familiar universal symbol of emanating light and energy in the overall design, one is at the same time distanced from it by the concentrated intensity of its making. The essence of the experience appears to be not in the image but in its formation, a process in which the viewer does not share.

Robert Younger’s objects are imitatively Dada-like in their irreverence rather than eccentric. In fact, his spiraling Tower of structor glass and plaster crowned with a live plant and his Rack of glass shelves hanging from the ceiling with two old-fashioned hats perched nonchalantly on them both poke fun at the mysteriously sacred art object in their juxtaposition of the mundane with acceptable art structures. Of course, the risk is that Younger’s pieces may become just as hermetic as the world they mimic. In Reading Stands the setup of pages of alphabetized words and phrases displayed on upright stands provides a humorous deviation from the seriousness of printed statements pinned on gallery walls. The written thoughts themselves are a hodgepodge of non sequiturs, the idiosyncratic musings of free association. The whole reads tongue-in-cheek—an amalgam of cliché clues to personalized meaning which end up parodying their presumption of significance.

It is perhaps unfair to talk about Charles Fahlen’s work after describing Younger’s puns on eccentricity. For Fahlen’s objects tend to depend on their strangeness as a repository for meaning. His fiberglass pyramid resting on unevenly carved wooden posts is a typical, mute, totemic object whose importance stems more from the mysterious reason for its existence than from the particular physical characteristics of its components. Although Fahlen does contrast the different colors, textures and opacities of his materials, these variations become subservient to the emblematic quality of the whole. One is left pondering over the logic behind the configuration, wondering about the hidden reasoning which seems to be more a cause than a result of the discernible relationships between the parts.

Susan Heinemann