New York

Tomma Abts, Oke, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 18 7/8 × 15".

Tomma Abts, Oke, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 18 7/8 × 15".

Tomma Abts

David Zwirner | 525 & 533 West 19th Street

Tomma Abts, Oke, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 18 7/8 × 15".

At once volatile and precise, Tomma Abts’s work keeps shifting beneath your feet. Echoing a wide range of precursors—from high Constructivism (Alexander Archipenko and Henryk Stażewski), to geometric abstraction’s flashier midcentury incarnations (Richard Anuszkiewicz, Victor Vasarely), to the eager swallowing-up of both by the “rad,” spray-paint-besmirched graphic design of the 1980s—the London-based artist’s neat, sharp, labor-intensive paintings unite a shallow if convincing illusory depth with a neurotic meticulousness to erect optical labyrinths that both tantalize and deceive. It’s as if Max Bill discovered the drop shadow and came to the party drunk on Op art: Try as you might, you can’t look away.

For all her obsessive fine-tuning and technical perfectionism, however, Abts leaves behind big, obvious clues pointing to her all-too-human hand: Among the paintings here—in her first exhibition in New York since 2008—the work Oke, 2013, for example, contains a major element that seems uncharacteristically dashed off. The composition features a palette of olive green, dark pink, and tan, and is structured around four semi-symmetrical curves. Faintly evoking floriated decorative motifs or fortissimo signs, these loops also recall dropped ribbons; Abts has added hyperillusionistic shadows that make the lines appear to lift off the canvas. Yet amid the mathematical exactitude of the work, two of the four curves stand apart. Slightly compressed and elongated, they look as if Abts had blithely sketched them out and then never refined their shape, a hint of imperfection that acts as a signal pointing directly to the body’s presence in its encounter with the canvas. But it also raises questions. Given Abts’s otherwise superhuman attention to detail, one wonders: Is this really a clue, or is it a false one? Is she showing her hand, or leading us on? Perhaps the appearance of unstudied improvisation is actually the real illusion, and what we perceive as gestural spontaneity is, in fact, a controlled choice, meticulously honed and governed by a conscious compositional directive. The question raised is not one of irony versus sincerity as it pertains to the gestural mark, but a much thornier one concerning perception’s entwinement with belief: Abts’s work, in its otherworldly perfectionism, eschews the rigidity of the “mechanical” in favor of the existential uncertaintiesof the virtual.

Also on view were a set of Abts’s drawings—large, roughly thirty-three-by-twenty-three-inch works on paper, which she has been making since 2013. Featuring complexly enmeshed parallel rows of candy-cane-striped bands, the images seem to weave and undulate like old screen savers, frequently in confusing or visually paradoxical ways. (The show ran concurrently with a more focused survey of similar works by Abts, “Mainly Drawings,” at the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado.) The drawings fascinate for many reasons, not the least of which is that the artist made them using a different method from that which she usually employs. If, when creating a painting (a process that can take several years), Abts finds herself following a compositional direction that feels unsatisfactory, she’ll keep at it, tweaking, revising, and repainting broad sections of a canvas. There are traces of these roads not taken: The slightly raised or recessed ridges visible throughout her works are evidence of overpainted marks. By contrast, when Abts creates the drawings, she works much faster, and any missteps lead her to immediately destroy the work and start over from scratch. Thus, the finished pieces are pristine. There are no eraser smudges, no signs of human error. But she still introduces a vague sense of disarray: As we’re transported by the drawings’ evocation of space, as we struggle to parse the complicated logic of their design, we can’t help but notice the pencil’s rough-hewn grain.

Lloyd Wise