Tomma Abts

Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch

It’s not often that we get to see new work by Tomma Abts. The artist’s labor-intensive process only allows her to produce about ten paintings a year, so it is with a certain excitement that one waits to see whether she has succeeded in further refining her concentrated, steadily developing oeuvre.

This show was sparse, consisting of five paintings and eight drawings, with each medium presented separately on a different floor. The paintings, displayed downstairs, were hung in a row and generously spaced on one long wall. In this simple hang, Abts introduced delicate but crucial nuances characteristic of the way she creates her sense of space and illusion. Her painting is, after all, concerned with boundaries, overlappings, and contradictions among sensory perception and pictorial space—abstract motifs give the illusion of three-dimensionality but then shift to a graphic, two-dimensional look, combining both impulses in a cleverly contradictory effect. The minimal manipulations of the gaze in Abts’s installation of the paintings extended this artistic strategy into real space: The intervals between the pictures seemed equivalent but actually varied by a few inches. Given the length of the wall, this incongruence was barely noticeable, but its effects lingered just beneath the threshold of perception. Moreover, Abts hung the pictures unusually low, considerably below eye level.

The five paintings—all being shown for the first time and dating from 2009 (except for Deke, 2006)—offered few surprises in terms of their formal vocabulary. They are all typical Abts pieces and make use of familiar parameters: a classical portrait format of nineteen by fifteen inches, odd titles like Hemko or Koes that derive from Friesian first names, a composition process based on layering different strata of paint, and so forth. For Abts, the newness of a work is measured by the precise enactment of an iterative pictorial logic, based on what appear to be strict formal structures that undermine straightforward geometry, pitting them against any sense of illusion.

In the green and yellow painting Leeko, three sets of parabolic arcs, circles, and pairs of lines are stacked one atop the other in order of increasing size, so that they appear to be overlapping as in a relief. At their points of intersection, these figures create an impression of shallow, illusory depth—as if the composition had been created using layered sheets of colored paper—that at the same time evokes the sort of contradictory pictorial logic we know from, say, M. C. Escher. Abts constructs this space abstractly, with the help of a specific color-based sense of three-dimensionality, using simultaneously vivid but muted tones. In this show, only Menk diverges from previous parameters: The artist cut off the upper right corner of the picture and developed the composition based on the resulting shaped canvas.

In the pencil and colored-pencil drawings, all Untitled, 2008, Abts reels off an abstract, linear formal vocabulary that likewise oscillates between flatness and three-dimensionality. Yet her drawings are independent of her paintings, not sketches or preparatory exercises. While the paintings are focused on creating density, the drawings are more concerned with developing their motifs extensively. In both media, Abts seductively confuses the gaze: Surface competes with space in an ambivalent interrelation. In this ostensibly reduced show, the result was both density and intensity.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.