Few art styles have left viewers as baffled (and even at times, irate) as minimalism — a bare-bones form of painting and sculpture that first emerged in the 1960s. Even for a public that had begun to appreciate wild abstractions of Jackson Pollock or the soup cans of Andy Warhol, exhibitions of steel plates lying on gallery floors, or blank canvases with a few ruled lines were hard to accept as art.
Those interested in visiting a current display of similarly challenging work need go no further than the Francine Seders Gallery on Phinney Ridge, where a drawing show by Seattle artist Robert McNown has just opened. One of the very subtly shimmering works in the exhibit appears from a distance to be nothing more than a grey piece of paper in a standard gallery frame. Oops, where’s the drawing?
I will be the first to admit that minimalism is the introvert of the art world. If you can’t get past your initial impression that there’s nothing there, there is no come-hither display of conspicuous color or lush imagery to bring you back. But in the case of McNown, walk on by and you’ll be missing something — an artist managing to be funny, clever, and even a bit zany within the extreme limits of the minimalist style.
McNown’s show consists of two dozen poster-sized pieces, most with simple abstract shapes outlined in thin white lines. The burnished pencil drawings are done in reverse, a truly monkish working method that requires the artist to color in everything but the actual drawing, whose white lines emerge as the only parts of the paper that aren’t covered. The pencil strokes are built up in a dense network of vibrating lines that functions as a sort of a Greek Chorus, commenting, quietly, on the more obvious parts of the drawing.
And what is going on in the rest of the drawing? Not very much, and quite a lot, all at once. In the piece called, "number 11," for example, the paper has been cut into T, L, and cross-shaped puzzle pieces, then pasted back together. Over this puzzle patchwork tidy, cartoonish cloud shapes collide in comic book explosions, with the pencil strokes changing direction and type depending on which shape they belong to. The overall effect is one of very quiet hilarity — represented by the cartoon shapes — exploding against a background of a serious, unbending geometry, partly derived from puzzles designed by the artist’s father. The message? A tidy, minimalist re-enactment of the age-old struggle of order against chaos, the rational doing battle with the irrational.
Once one has accepted the spare language of the work, much pleasure can be taken admiring the witty permutations the artist achieves within his tiny, hermetic world. Some pieces seem dominated by conflict, others by harmony. One piece reminds me of a familiar maze-like board game, but here the punch line seems to be a meditation on missed connections. All of the pieces benefit from the way the slightly rippled paper surface both reflects and soaks in the light, acting a bit like a dark, burnished metal.
When the original minimalists, like Sol Lewitt and Frank Stella, first displayed their work, it was partly as a response to the chaotic energy and in-your-face emotionalism of abstract expressionism. McNown’s pilgrimage to this spare, subtle work parallels that of the larger art world. With his current show he makes a compelling argument for the minimalist credo — “less is more.”