Uncommon Application

12 December 2009 – 6 February 2010

Prometheus, Brian Hart, acrylic on canvas
Orange Construction Fence Series #32/71, Jeanne Williamson, mixed media

Brian Hart and Jeanne Williamson are two artists that have created a vocabulary of imagery that is both personal and universal, and who employ various means to accomplish their ends. What links them is the use of the grid, and a modern sensibility that requires the viewer to step up to the plate and interact with the work, looking at many pieces over a period of time and gradually learning the visual language through which they are communicating.

Jeanne Williamson is an abstract artist who happens to work with fabric, thread and paint. Her work is a bit like Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie meets the quiet, reductionist paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin. Jeanne works with orange plastic construction fencing. She discovered this material a number of years ago and had an "ah-ha moment" when she saw the grid of a high rise building near the ICA in Boston "covered with different colors of insulation, plywood and scaffolding, . . . The grids of the windows and columns on the building were predictable, but the grid was broken up while under construction, and the color of the building materials was very unexpected." Williamson has since worked with the plastic fencing material single mindedly, creating an ever-changing kaleidoscope of variations on a theme. Her work is thoughtful, with a bold even cadence. The influence of architecture is particularly evident in Orange Construction Fence Series #53 & #54. There’s an urban, industrial look that is invigorated by bright colors and a sense of playfulness.

The construction fencing is, of course, a grid, with all that implies of modern society (meaning society as we know it today, in the beginning of the 21st century), and the connectivity we experience through electricity and the internet. The newest piece, Orange Construction Fence Series #32/71, represents a radical shift in technique, she has literally broken through the tyranny of the rectangle, as artists have been doing for years, but what is interesting is that her work has never been entirely geometric. Fabric, like the construction fencing, shrinks at different rates due to the organic nature of fiber. Plastic is a curiously mobile material, like glass, neither solid nor liquid. So it shifts and flows, warps and is ripped and stretched, damaged and affected by time. She has sliced through the layers of fabric to make the piece more like the plastic fence material, and like the plastic, the fabric warps and shifts in a gravitational field, revealing the wall behind and creating a shadow.

Brian Hart is a relatively recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the son of artist and teacher Mary Hart. Brian’s work has its roots in history painting, a modern day Poussin with references to both classical art and popular culture, such as video games and comics.

Brian is concerned with what he calls the reinterpretation of stories by modern means, and so his work is far more narrative than Jeanne’s. The stories he tells, the myths he references, are multi-layered retellings of old stories from mythology and world religion. He writes, "The idea of heroes and villains, the conflict between the two and how they are portrayed has always fascinated me whether it is in mythology, TV, movies, comics or video games." In Prometheus, we see a feathered and clawed Prometheus, and an equally prominent Mario of Mario Bros fame. There is the pixilated aftermath of virtual violence, and enough squirting blood to remind us of Caravaggesque decapitations. Yet center and foremost is a large bird staring sideways at the viewer. Is it a vulture waiting to pick at the spoils or the mythological eagle that was set by Zeus to eat Prometheus’s liver for the crime of bringing fire to humanity? And so we wonder who is the hero, and who the villain, and why does that beady avian eye stare out from the canvas and into the soul of the viewer? We are invited into the artist’s world of universal and personal symbolism, but clearly we are not given all the keys with which to decipher hidden messages. We are left, in the end, to interpret as we will, based on our own experiences and associations.

Doe See Doe is a brilliant painting. Like Williamson, Hart has employed a grid, but his grid is more subservient to the composition as a whole rather than the originating basis of the work. There’s crudely painted text (Cupid) and a cartoon heart and arrow that contrasts with the majestic image of a stag and doe. If you look carefully you can just make out an anatomical heart with the aorta wrapping around in front. Perhaps it’s an ironic commentary on the gap between the reality and depth of an interconnected relationship versus the commercial Valentine’s Day associations of hyper-romance. There’s wordplay as well; according to Wikipedia, the word 'hart' is an old alternative word for "stag." The artist is aware of the connection with his surname, so the stag can be read as autobiographical. And there are images within images, a cityscape inside the body of the stag, a world inside a world.

These are paintings that resist a didactic narrative treatment, they don’t tell a definitive story but invite the viewer in to interact, interpret, and decipher. Jeanne’s pieces use a more purely abstract visual language, yet these too can be read in various ways especially as you see her work evolve over time, as you can on her intelligently designed website. Both artists display an attention to surface that reveals the love of and respect for the materials they use, and a willingness to use a variety of techniques depending on what the work requires. In the end, it is an odd pairing, but it is an odd pairing of the best kind, allowing the differences in style and content to reveal the strength and visual dynamism inherent in the work.

Deborah Santoro

Doe See Doe, Brian Hart, acrylic on canvas