New York

Bruce Boice

Sonnabend Gallery

Bruce Boice is one of several artists attempting to make paintings with an evident logical foundation. James Dearing and Gary Stephan are close in age and intention. Boice’s paintings exist as a set of propositions and steps as well as a visual experience. And this visuality results from, just as it obscures, the basic, underlying logic.

Boice paints in series; each painting in this exhibition is one of about three arrangements of the same components. And each painting is in itself a series of three: literally a combination of three separate canvases and, not so literally, of three conditions. The panel, either to the far left or right of the three is, in ways which are more or less clear, a combination of the other two and this canvas is invariably framed in wood. The size of the panels is constant, 27” x 31 1/2”, a very squarish rectangle. Often, but not always, the third canvas is turned on end, another physical alternation of the entire element, like the wood frame, which also alters the positioning of the components on its surface. The components Boice works with are few and simple; blocks of strong color or rectilinear outlines which are the whole, the half or a quarter of the canvas, a constant border of raw canvas at the edges, and painted bars which change and are changed by each other. There are innumerable alterations. In one of the simplest works in the exhibition, the upper half of the first canvas is black, the upper half of the second is white, the upper half of the third, the canvas framed in wood, is gray, an obvious combination of the black with white. In another, the upper half of the first canvas is brown, the right half of the second canvas is white. The third, framed canvas is turned on end, its upper half is mostly white, with a strip of brown. This suggests that the brown area was painted on, conforming to the conceptual condition of the first brown area, by extending to the center of the now vertical rectangle. The overlapping white, on the other hand, continues the physical condition of its predecessor and maintains its exact measurement. The final combination also implies that the brown area was transposed horizontally, while the middle canvas, white area and all, was merely flipped a quarter-turn, to the vertical. This sequential reading, implying time and action, decisions about the precedence of one area over another, the use of one measurement instead of another (the negative, blank spaces have as much to do with the changes as the painted ones), relates to logical thinking more than painting. The logic is full of holes; the decisions are mostly Boice’s. After awhile it is pointless to figure them out, and it is apparent that Boice has set up conditions within which he makes systematic, logical-looking decisions which are finally as visual and intuitive as any painter’s. Each painting could have been done a number of ways (one of the reasons for working in series). Furthermore the conceptual framework is constantly subverted by the visual results. The same components look different as they change position in different canvases. It becomes quite difficult to figure out if the changes are actual or optical. Similarly the wooden frames and vertical canvases make it difficult to grasp if something has been changed or merely repeated, and also make the canvas sizes look different when they never are. This can get a bit tricky, and it is possible to start thinking of the paintings as games, puzzles to figure out, in the visual sense too (after you’ve given up on the conceptual). Another, related objection is that the sequential experience of the work remains the most prominent. Too often I found myself liking one canvas of the three, or specific components, a blue bar intersecting a square of a different blue for example, and wondering what if that alone were a painting, big and by itself. But this does not really work; the arrangements are clearly relative, even when the relations aren’t clear. A series of drawings, more recent than the paintings, indicate possibilities which are more complicated and obscure in their logic and more peculiar in the resulting configurations.

Yet, the work is interesting to think about; it sets your mind and eyes going in several directions at once. Boice succeeds in juggling several ideas and visual qualities; he keeps them aloft but the results often have an unsettling neutrality about them which is intelligent but a little cold-blooded. Boice wants the work to be visual but the visuality remains somewhat diagrammatic, almost hygienic. The wooden frame, for example, seems to spell out both “picture” and “object” without really being either, and the fact that this is so is more interesting to think about than to look at. At this point, Boice’s self-consciousness seems too complete; the conditions which he sets up do not finally free him, the qualities of the paintings, or us to enjoy them. Everything is kept in a state of extreme consciousness, which seems like a good place to start from, but is obviously only a beginning.

Roberta Smith