The Seattle gallery’s show “Color and Pattern” is a big departure from other, realism-dominated shows from Allen’s trove of artworks. You’ll see masters of the form, though, like Damien Hirst, Wassily Kandinsky and Frank Stella.
Considering that previous Allen Collection exhibits were dominated by realism (see my previous reviews, February 2017 and December 2016) this array of often uncompromising, nonrepresentational art comes as something of a surprise.
The consistent high quality of the included works, and their wide variety of styles, makes for a lively exhibit, although with some maddening moments — a familiar mix when speaking of contemporary art. Viewers who are less familiar with, or comfortable with, abstraction will also find themselves challenged by several edgy, messy pieces by younger or lesser-known artists, here sitting cheek-by-jowl with modernist classics by masters like Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky and Jasper Johns.
Squarely in the edgy/messy/maddening department are the seven 4-foot disks by Brazilian artist Guillermo Kuitca (“Diarios”), discarded paintings that he cut into circles to fit a studio tabletop, and then used as a writing surface to stream his very lively consciousness. Rather ugly from a distance — simple, brightly colored canvases that look highly scuffed — it is only on closer inspection that the scuff marks reveal the hundreds of sketches, notations, diagrams and drawings laid atop the paintings. The random jottings have no relationship at all to what’s underneath, so that the manic seems at war with the structured, the mundane with the ethereal.
The musical, metaphysical Kandinsky on the opposing wall could not be more different. Kuitca seems to question the purity and truthfulness of art; Kandinsky sees painting as a doorway to higher consciousness. Time has taken the shock value out of his groundbreaking work, and we are comforted and even amused by the utter self-assuredness of his visually complex, philosophically dense language of forms.
Adam McEwen’s circular panel “Untitled” is as enigmatic and understated as the Kandinsky is showy, and it’s not really an abstraction. McEwen is a conceptual artist who uses industrial-scale graphite to create life-size replicas of things like ATMs and computer servers. In “Untitled,” a graphite panel has been etched by a computer-driven milling machine, resulting in a detailed tapestry of hundreds of crisscrossed scraps of wood, like a building smashed by a wrecking ball. From even a few feet away the subject matter is unintelligible, but the details of the chaos appear when one hovers nearby.
Equally subversive in its own way is the expansive “The Siren Sound” by Tomory Dodge. Dodge creates highly kinetic, collagelike compositions enlivened by zappy color and a huge variety of paint-applying techniques. But “The Siren Sound” comes with its own punchline: the right half of the painting is an exact mirror image — gestural paint and all — of the left.
Contemporary abstraction like Dodge’s owes a large debt to pioneers like Johns (also in the show) and Kandinsky, but the idea of twinning your own art? That sort of gamesmanship is the legacy of a very different modernist pioneer, Marcel Duchamp. And since Duchamp did so few actual paintings, it’s highly unlikely that one of his works will emerge anytime soon from the still-mysterious depths of the Allen art vaults.