All posts in “abstract painting”

Object of the Week: Dream of the Language Wheel

Freedom of worship is one of the founding principles of American democracy. After all, the First Amendment forms our constitutional religious rights: it protects the free exercise and establishment of religion. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 State of the Union, delivered before the United States’ entry into World War II, he reminded the American people that the United States was committed to securing a future in which four essential human freedoms are upheld, the second of which is, in his words, the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”

This is a powerful and important message, especially today. And while there are many works in SAM’s collection that give visual form to the freedom of worship, there are also a number of works that represent the opposite narrative: religious freedoms being taken away. For example, there are a number of objects in our Native American galleries whose value and function during potlatches tell a different story of persecution, as such ceremonies were banned by in 1885. Unfortunately, there are too many stories like this told through our material and visual culture. So, when thinking about freedom of worship, we must also ask who is free to worship.

In the piece pictured here, Dream of the Language Wheel, Guy Anderson offers up a unifying religious message. A member of the Northwest School, Anderson was a peer of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves and known for his abstract “mystic” paintings that incorporated motifs ranging from Zen Buddhism to Hinduism to Native American cosmologies, among others. Formally, the painting exhibits a degree of visual tension due to its divided canvas with dark and light elements. Embedded within the upper half are symbols from Northwest Coast groups—such as a fish and raven, whose treatments reference the iconic formline style of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. In the lower half, we see early Christian symbols similarly contained within an abstract field.

While this work could be interpreted through a lens of cultural appropriation, Anderson’s blending of spiritual practices and cultures other than his own evinces the artist’s freedom of worship, developing a unique brand of spirituality which manifested itself artistically. It is also no accident that Anderson brings together Native American and early Christian iconography, given the long and fraught history between Native communities and Christian colonizers; however, the title of the work—Dream of the Language Wheel—holds, I think, an important key to the work’s meaning. A tool used to help find and translate words among different languages, a language wheel is meant to make things synonymous—that is, forge similarities. Perhaps Anderson believed that art was that thing, like a language wheel, that could unite us rather than divide us, showing us how we are more similar in our religious beliefs than we are different.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Dream of the Language Wheel, 1962, Guy Anderson, oil on canvas, 81 x 48 in., Gift of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.15.3 © Guy Anderson and Deryl Walls
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Object of the Week: X

Malcolm [X] . . . preferred to illuminate the bitter calculus of oppression, one in which a people had been forced to hand over their right to self-defense, a right enshrined in Western law and morality and taken as essential to American citizenship, in return for the civil rights that they had been promised a century earlier.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” 2011

In this work by Brenna Youngblood, a nearly monochromatic black field is punctuated by intersecting white lines, forming an ‘X’ at the center. Engaging in the history of abstraction as well as photo-montage and collage, Youngblood weds vernacular modes of representation with the language of abstract painting.

Upon closer look, this black painting, titled X, is in fact full of definition and color: small specks of red, blue, and yellow appear ready to burst through the topography of the black surface. A trained photographer, Youngblood uses her experiences behind the lens to explore the intersections between image, illusion, and objecthood, often building up the surfaces of her canvases. In this context, the equally precise and messy ‘X’ acts as a spatial element—its white incisions accentuating the black ground. It also functions as an ‘X’—both a letter and symbol of negation—as well as a reference, and perhaps homage, to Civil Rights leader Malcolm X.

Within SAM’s contemporary galleries, this piece is on view just around the corner from Barnett Newman’s The Three. An exemplar painting by Newman, the black and white composition bears certain formal similarities to X, but more interesting is the way in which Newman considered the function of line in his work:

I think of a line as a thing that involves certain possibilities. It acts as a contour and moves in relation to a shape; it also acts as something that divides space. . . . I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others, who are also separate.[1]

The New York School artist’s poetic interpretation adds even more meaning when thinking about the lines in Youngblood’s X—that the marks function, formally and emotionally, as both a dividing and uniting element in her work. With the title reference to Malcolm X, as well, the above message of possibility and hope takes on even more meaning in our current political climate—that despite our divisions, connection and unity is possible.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 257.

Image: X, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, paper and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.2 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery
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What Do You Disclose? An Interview with Denzil Hurley

Seattle-based artist and University of Washington professor Denzil Hurley’s glyph paintings are aptly titled. A glyph is a symbol. One that typically conveys an agreed upon or shared meaning. These can be the unique marks of the written word, a graphic element, or an inscription. More broadly, a glyph can be a shape or color that we understand to have an agreed upon purpose separate from language, such as a circle with a slash through it for “no,” or red for “stop.” In Hurley’s work, shape and color are paramount.  Well known for his monochrome paintings and impact on the world of abstract painting, a selection of these glyph paintings currently hang at SAM in Denzil Hurley: Disclosures, on view through November 5.

In Disclosures these paintings become sculptural by being mounted on repurposed sticks and poles. As objects, the glyph paintings become reminiscent of signs and harken back to Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting, Black Square which was intimately tied to social and political discussions at the cusp of the October Revolution in Russia. Deceptively simple, there’s a density to Hurley’s black canvases in his layering of the paint and in his use of materials. Spend some time in Disclosures the next time you come by SAM and consider what you derive from a redacted painting involving the form of signs and the framing of the wall. What does your understanding say about our socially constructed meanings of these symbols?

SAM: The works at SAM came out of visits to Barbados. Can you tell us about these trips? I’m thinking specifically about how they informed the material concerns of your work.

Denzil Hurley: The idea of repurposing materials arose out of observations I made over many years, and several trips there. The paintings in the exhibition were selected from a larger body of work that began around 2006–07. Each piece was thought of, and developed individually out of my interests in modular forms and structures involving squares and rectangles.

Do you see these paintings as a whole? If I think about the public protests being referenced through the work, and the “power in numbers” philosophy behind taking to the streets, do you feel that viewers can derive a larger meaning by seeing the group than by seeing a single work in the series?

I exhibited related pieces from this larger body of work in the Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum in 2009, and a Francine Seders Gallery group exhibition in 2012. I welcome the curatorial decision at SAM to select, and present the work in a particular way. It certainly serves to open up the room and bring certain referencing to the fore.

You talk about density in your paintings. In your monochrome paintings how do you use a single color to create layered meaning?

My working process and painting ideas involve color, layering, stacking, erasure and concerns with surfaces that allow individual differences to be developed and realized in each piece.

In a work such as the piece framing the empty wall, does density continue to play a part in the work?

Within the context of one piece relating to another and involving the wall, the floor, and bringing together painting ideas, sculptural form, and installation practice, it allows for conjunctions between differences.

Images: Installation views of “Denzil Hurley: Disclosures” at Seattle Art Museum, 2017, photos: Mark Woods.

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