|Op at UP
UP & CO, New York, NY, May 16 - July 18, 1998
Press and Installation Shots
"Op Art in the '90s"
by Tom Moody
VERY Magazine, Issue 3
This article is the de facto catalog essay and "manifesto" for the exhibition. For full text, [click here].
"Op 'til you drop: Two new shows
put a whole new spin on Op Art"
As movements go, Op Art has had a sadly checkered history. During its heyday in the early '60s, it was revered as a species of pure abstraction devoted to optical illusion. But by the end of the decade, Op Art had been so frequently employed as a faddy fashion motif that it had lost all credibility as serious art. And when such artists as Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe began appropriating elements of Op for their own ironic ends about 20 years later, they certainly didn't help its reputation. Now, however, a pair of terrific shows–one at MoMA, the other at UP & CO–suggests that Op Art may be making a comeback.
The splashier of the two shows is the latest "Projects" offering at the Museum of Modern Art–an institution that played an important part in Op Art's history when, in 1965, it mounted "The Responsive Eye," the definitive Op survey. This time around, MoMA's curators have picked four young artists whose work, as cocurator Lillian Tone puts it, lifts "content into a contentless realm." Basically, this means that while everything here comes loaded with visual stimuli, the work also has–surprise, surprise–a conceptual edge, which offers viewers an extra mind-bending dimension.
The show opens with Karin Davie's canvases, in which brightly colored stripes morph into vaguely humanoid shapes. Smudged with smears and drips, the overall result looks like a weird hybrid of Op Art and underground comix by way of Morris Louis. The next gallery holds Bruce Pearson's appealing relief paintings which resemble psychedelic posters. Covered with phrases like "ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF OBJECTIVITY," Pearson's pieces are carved from Styrofoam and painted in Day-Glo colors. The words are almost indecipherable, but they seem to pulsate with subliminal meaning anyway.
Pearson's paintings make the perfect foil for Udomsak Krisanamis's more muted work, which hangs in the same room. Viewed from afar, these arrangements of ivory dots and lozenges on blue and black backgrounds resemble starry skies or Agnes Martin–like abstractions. Upon closer inspection, however, each piece turns out to have been obsessively collaged. Like Pearson, Krisanamis incorporates words in his work; he starts out each piece by layering strips of newspaper onto canvas, then uses a Magic Marker to black out everything but the spaces within letters.
The final room is devoted to the excellent Fred Tomaselli, who continues here his trademark practice of embedding pills and other controlled substances within thick layers of resin, so that they seem to vibrate and glow. Incredibly, even though Tomaselli uses pretty much the same craftsmanship and materials throughout, each piece has a completely different look and feel. In the phantasmagoric Bird Blast, for example, a colorful eruption of leaves and bird illustrations explodes from the work's center. In 9000 Beats Per Second, which recalls the work of original Op Art master Bridget Riley, wavy stripes made of aspirin tablets throb against an austere black void.
"Op at Up," meanwhile, is being held in a scruffy Tribeca space that couldn't be more different from MoMA's pristine environs. Most of the pieces use fairly minimal materials and are thumbtacked to the walls; as a result the whole show has the air of an elementary-school science fair. In contrast to the trippy sensibility on view at MoMA, the works here simply play with perception. But the longer you look at this stuff, the dizzier it makes you feel.
For work of sheer nausea-inducing potential, top prize has go to Tom Moody, who also organized the show. Starting with a single basic component–a computer-generated stripe, minutely shaded with black Ben Day dots and photocopied at slightly different sizes–Moody pieces together a quilt that's crazy enough to make your head spin. Mark Dagley turns in another vertiginous performance with his painting of primary-colored dots in an out-of-sync spiral. And in Ray Rapp's two-monitor video installation, animated spheres advance and recede in a peculiarly jerky fashion.
The show's real standout, however, is Alicia Wirt, whose pieces made me think in new ways about painting. In her 7-Layered Light Shelf, for instance, several triangular shelves cast ordinary shadows below, while reflecting colors above. Since they're installed above eye level, it's impossible to see how these objects were made. I was also fascinated by David Clarkson's mixed-media construction, in which blue dots, red lightbulbs and a blue mobile are suspended against a crimson background. Staring at it affords some very interesting afterimages once you finally look away.
In this day and age, reenvisioning a '60s movement minus irony or nostalgia–as the work in both of these shows so ably does–seems an unusually refreshing achievement. Still, we should all perhaps think twice before asking for more. Our eyes might not be able to take it.
"Op at UP"
UP & CO would appear to be one of those [boutique] establishments that spring up out of the void to [sell] magazines, fashion, furniture, housewares, or cutting edge art--many are apt to have short half-lives. In this case Tom Moody, who includes himself, has brought together a mixed group of the very sharp-edged engaged in Op Art, which the dull long thought dead. Wrong says Moody. Op is for always; color moves; art can or need not be static; light can dance, and images creep about courtesy of the laws of nature--optics for the now generation.
What first is interesting in this small collection is that all seem fresh, not necessarily super and great and significant but fresh, from now not back in the '60s when Op Art did have its obligatory fifteen minutes after Pop and before Minimalism, appearing for a whole season at Howard Wise, until the major players like Bridget Riley went back to making more typical stuff, back to their school.
Here in one room on Church Street there is no school emerging--only one work recalls Riley: Mark Dagley's Concentric Sequence, 1996. It spins and whirls and blurs, and despite or because of all this remains appealing, decorative not profound, handsome, not so much contemporary as cunning. Moody's own work, Pipes 2, 1998, of laser print and linen tape, theory aside, blurs out nicely, not as appealing or decorative as Dagley's, but definitely as Op had promised. Alicia Wirt does small slight objects that in various lights reflect a hidden spectrum on the wall, eerie or precious depending on one's taste. And David Clarkson has deconstructed Op into parts up on the wall, wood and light bulbs, motors and wires, Plexiglas, red and blue, the sum not quite equaling the parts; an idea going someplace, perhaps towards sculpture, but not quite. Here it may relate to to Op, but anyplace else it would fit in the with the present crowd.
Ray Rapp offers bubbles on video, that is, if you want to watch bubbles on video - much that is on video, commercially, artistically, whatever, seems to be Pop Op or Op Pop anyway. Rapp obviously feels more is not enough. Mark Dagley has a wood construction with glass and a geodesic sphere that is neither Pop nor Op, not closely related to anything else, but fits the category of works that almost look like something else: a mistake by a cabinet maker, a machine shop practice model, a packing crate with grace.
Anyway, there it sits. And despite all the blurs and reflections, whatever Tom Moody may intend or feel, this eager eye is not convinced that Op is either with us again or here to stay. Dagley's archetypal optical basis will have to live or die on the degree of its novelty, not the weight of tradition - and so too Moody's object. The others are really engaged in other matters that are optical, but give the impression of arriving at effects on the way to someplace else from someplace else. Wirt's objects are curiosities now, but who knows what comes next, or for that matter what came before. Now they, like most of the other objects, can be clumped into an Op slot, that emphasizes certain aspects at the expense of others - which is a good thing during the month of round-up, grumble groups, and attenuated collections.
Photo, top: "Op at UP," installation view. Walls, left to right: Mark Dagley, Concentric Sequence, 1997, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 72" X 72"; Alicia Wirt, Light Cones, 1998, gouache on paper, 114" X 4"; Alicia Wirt, 7-Layered Light Shelf, acrylic and enamel on wood, 20" X 48"; Tom Moody, Pipes 2, 1998, laser prints and linen tape, 88" X 78". Floor: Ray Rapp, bubblemation, 1997, computer animation with TVs; Mark Dagley, Fludd's Universe, 1998, wood construction, glass, painted geodesic sphere model.
Photo, below: Tom Moody, Pipes 2; David Clarkson, To the Egress, 1998, enamel on wood, light bulbs, motors, wire, Plexiglas, 72" X 36" (hardware dimensions variable).
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