Imitation may be sincere flattery, but makes uninteresting art.
Thursday, April 15, 2004
As is the tradition at the Pacific Grove Art Center, the four new exhibitions opening Friday offer something for everybody. Just Let Go, a selection of mixed media abstract paintings by Pebble Beach resident Peter K. Brooks is a collection of non-representational designs; Landscapes Around the World by Carmel artist Alice Brown transports the plein air painting sensibility to exotic locales; Exteriors by former Pacific Grove artist Hadley Northrop offers a nostalgic view of favorite friends and places; and Exposed, intricate pen-and-ink drawings by Pacific Grove artist Lisa Joy Waldman, invites viewers into an interior realm of signs and symbols.
Of these exhibitions, the one rife with lessons about painting is Brooks’ 27 acrylic and mixed medium abstractions. The title, Just Let Go, tells the tale of an assumed freedom as Brooks whimsically samples several abstract genres, one after another, approximating surface effect without a substantive foundation to ground the work in any particular vocabulary.
Like a random recitation from a foreign language dictionary, giving to the ignorant the sounds and impressions that the tongue is being spoken, Brooks’ abstract paintings appropriate a range of appearances from 20th-century abstract painting, offering them as if a real investigation has occurred. Meandering through the gallery, one recognizes the familiar iconography: the calligraphic writing of Mark Tobey; the collision of tectonic plates of Clifford Still; the blocks and bars of Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman; the grids of Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian; the architectonic rectangles of Brice Marden; Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series; the hazy mindscapes of Mark Rothko; the prismatic, geometric shards of Bauhaus Kandinsky; and the busy textured surfaces of Richard Pousette-Dart.
The artists who developed the aforementioned iconography were thinkers and experimenters, steeped in the techniques and ideas of traditional and modern art training. They brought these to the studio, and gradually developed the painterly vocabulary that plumbed the depths of their spiritual beings.
Kandinsky published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” in 1911 after gathering notes about painting and its spiritual aspects for ten years. In it, he put forth ideas that had been percolating, such as the spiritual content of individual colors and the connection between modern art and theosophical teachings. His chapter on Theosophy serves as a lodestone for much 20th-century abstraction; Mondrian, Pousette-Dart and Kandinsky’s followers were all drawn to it and the theosophist painter has all decisions in the creative process informed by these beliefs.
The 20th-century painters of abstraction came from a spiritual/mythic place. Even the existential heroes of American Abstract Expressionism after the cataclysmic Second World War saw their actions as journeys of self-definition and discovery representing the zeitgeist.
In Brooks’ sea of styles, no imperative is in ascendance, no evidence of artistic philosophy or point of view comes forward. One is left with Brooks’ facility to recreate the look of so many different abstract investigations from the past.
His “Icarus” features two amorphic shapes floating on a black field. The irregular edges and heavy, earthy coloration recall the manner in which Clifford Still floated islands of shapes on his cosmic seas.
Brooks, like Diebenkorn, has a series of abstracted landscapes that utilize horizontal and vertical lines interacting with diagonal elements, as if one were peering out a window frame at the terrain beyond. But whereas Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings seem to reverberate with painted layers of decisions—intimate involvement with the subject—Brooks’ “MB 3” and “MB 4” feel arrested, thwarted, unable to break away from the stereotype view of this area and the borrowed format from Santa Monica.
Brooks quotes Rothko in one painting featuring a blue field with two brightly-colored lozenge shapes with diaphanous edges floating one above the other. Rothko presented his gauzy shapes like summations of all mystic skies and lands ever painted; they don’t float as much as drone or hum, like an eternal chant from the origin of time. Rothko relied on a large scale to achieve much of this. On a smaller scale, Brooks uses the Rothkoesque lozenges, but Brooks’ strident coloration of them introduces a new effect. The painting is merely interesting as homage-making.
The most successful of Brooks’ works are his Rune paintings, all-over patterns of glyphs incised into paint and textured surfaces achieved with gauze, cheesecloth, pumice, paper and pieces of raw canvas. Like their ancient Anglo-Saxon or Celtic models, the glyphs are evocative and imbued with the emotional weight of an archeological find. However, Brooks’ propensity for puns works against the gravitas present, with “City in Runes” and “Runey Tunes” breaking the spell.
Brooks communicates energy and homage, but hasn’t taken the acquired vocabularies to the level where artistic volition permeates each painting.
Four new exhibitions open Friday at the Pacific Grove Art Center with a 7-9pm reception Friday. 375-2208.