Chicago

John Pittman

Roy Boyd Gallery

The best hard-edged geometric abstraction, especially at small scale, ends up negotiating an almost palpable tension between reduction and expansion. John Pittman narrows his playing field to a very few core elements—a monochromatic ground with a spare array of thinnish lines of a second color gridded across it. There is something nearly puritanical about this parsimony, a condensing so severe that it seems to test the limits of painting. And yet at the heart of Pittman's enterprise is his search for a degree of visual engagement that will reward closer inspection: Which monochromatic ground, what lines, how gridded? The infinite subtlety of the interrelationship of these elements propels these paintings.

None of the fifteen paintings shown here was larger than two feet in height or width, and most were around half that size. The modest dimensions let Pittman hunker down and almost suggested a sense of pictorial humility; such little pictures made one attentive, sensitizing and slowing one's response to the things that happen in them. The colors Pittman carefully selected for his grounds were mostly rich and nuanced shades of tan, yellow, cream, and a kind of bone white, while others were blue, green, or various types of red. On these painted surfaces Pittman rendered a small series of thin lines of opposite value. In most cases, these were horizontal and vertical lines, though in a few instances they were a bit skewed.

The quality of thoughtful and judicious calibration evoked a satisfying sense of balance that was independent of symmetrical composition: Their harmonies seemed musical and discreet but avoided any consistent procedure or rule. The clusters of lines seemed strangely organic, creating the sense that they somehow generated one another and were linked by more than formal strategy. In fact, their vertical articulation seemed to echo distantly the patterns of nature, as if offering some purified experience where linear geometry and the physical world take on each other's properties. In a more schematic reading, they could evoke modest communities, seemingly derived from the street plans of some village. This sense of accretive evolution and deliberate tempo prevented the paintings from seeming too rigorous or severe. Instead, their subtle dynamism gave them a casual and inevitable profile, one that is clearly the residue of highly intelligent design.

James Yood