Los Angeles

Peter Plagens

USC Fisher Museum of Art

The earliest of this exhibition’s thirty years of paintings and collages share the motif of a circle within an irregular field filling most of the canvas or paper support. Often alone, seldom sharing space with other circles or curvilinear elements, and sometimes cohabiting with rectilinear and triangular shapes, each hand-painted but compass-accurate circle is in some way incomplete. When painted as disks of solid color, they lack a wedge like a pie with a piece removed, or have a flat portion that Peter Plagens compares to a “round of gouda sliced on one side.” Elsewhere, they are rings broken by thin cracks and broad gaps. Visually these have the effect of a burst balloon or breached hull, but Plagens’s compositions neither represent nor intentionally reference such things. Rather, they suggest a loss of control over space. With the circle unable to fully contain or withhold, what is within flows into, and negotiates equilibrium with what is without—or vice versa. Figures of speech here provide familiar terms to describe that which is not depicted but simply, formally, is.

But it’s quite possible to dredge up associations, and Plagens occasionally teases us into trying with compositions that verge on the pictographic and titles that range from the resistant Untitled to the absurdly overdetermined Cleveland Defaults on its Debts, 1979. But unlike art that poses as abstraction while playing representational games, or that borrows formalist visual idioms but fails to take them beyond a basic level, Plagens’s works arise from a genuine investigation of both form and reference and require a similar level of commitment from their viewers. Where or how a circle is broken becomes the focus as one abandons the game of deciding whether the shape is a letter C, an overturned urn, or a pierced cell.

Thus one dwells on the fact that, in Cubist Landscape, 1980, for example, a circle falls just off center and breaks at just the spot so that its slight dominance of the painting’s lower left is lightened, and it seemingly propels itself back to the center. These are little issues, but they are everything here, delineating Plagens’s break-it-then-fix-it and make-it-right-then-screw-it-up approaches. Such is the case with more recent compositions wherein angular shapes push one another around within the frame, amoebic forms vie for elbow room, and abutted and interlocking blocks of color compete in a push-pull that subverts the spatial dominance and fixity of each.

Plagens’s works resolve themselves not according to formulaic purity or easy harmony but in case-by-case negotiations of measure and countermeasure. Collectively they reveal an investigation into how compositions convey as opposed to how pictures represent—in this case, an investigation of how abstraction might suggest a sense of awkwardness and quiet anxiety. Their demand and reward lie in the way they require that you use an interpretive muscle that has atrophied in the absence of compelling formalist art, while simultaneously forcing you to retrain it for new tasks.

Christopher Miles