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Geometry and Jazz

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John Carter

at Belloc Lowndes Fine Art, through June 22

Allen Stringfellow

at Nicole Gallery, through June 17

John Carter's powerful abstract wood constructions seem divided against themselves. Midway between painting and sculpture, each of the nine works now on view at Belloc Lowndes Fine Art contains flat painted surfaces, but most also have gaps, geometrical "holes" really, between the different pieces of wood. The geometrical figures the 53-year-old Briton paints recall minimalism, but the "perfection" of minimalism's "ideal" forms is undercut by Carter's tactile surfaces. He mixes marble dust into the paint and later sands it by hand to create jewellike pinpoint reflections amid a finish that's irregular and splotchy overall. This approach makes all the shapes, even those of the same color, different--each the unique result of dust distribution and sanding.

Ultimately Carter's art divides the viewer as well. Designed around perceptual antinomies, these works tickle the eye and mind with neat sets of interlocking paradoxes.

Part of what's interesting about Overlaid Elements, Double Square, perhaps the most complex piece in the show, is how distant a physical description of it is from the effect it creates. Eleven trapezoidal columns of wood are set vertically and parallel to one another, each connected to the next by six smaller wood quadrilaterals; the colors are three shades of gray. But the effect is of superimposed shapes, some vertical and some horizontal, each smaller at one end and larger at the other like the beam from a film projector. Since most of the horizontal "beams" are made of many separate pieces of wood, or of the holes between wood, our perception of them depends on the mind's ability to complete an interrupted shape. Carter superimposes shapes that are almost mirror images, like two melodies heard simultaneously in polyphonic music.

Another way Carter's work differs from recent minimalist art is that it doesn't readily reveal its materials. In fact, at times it seems as if he's trying to fool the viewer. The color bands on the vertical columns in Overlaid Elements, Double Square are separated by tiny black lines that often seem like indentations in the surface, so I began to think that each color band was a separate piece of wood. Only when the gallery owners lifted the piece away from the wall and showed me the unpainted backs of the columns, which were without lines, was I convinced otherwise. Just as the separate pieces of wood create the illusion of continuous beams, so the continuous columns produce the illusion of separate pieces. And the empty spaces represent a third variety of "beam."

It isn't that nothing's what it seems in Carter's work but that things are sometimes what they seem, and sometimes they're the opposite. Because of the precise way he balances his works one feels both possibilities are equally valid. His art recalls one of Newton's laws: just as for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction, so for every expanding beam there's a contracting one as well. Yet the works' three-dimensionality and tactile surfaces make them more than conceptual diagrams. They project themselves into the space in a way that suggests direct commands, almost imperatives, especially pieces like Overlaid Elements VIII. Its columns, growing larger at the bottom and separated by empty spaces, are almost like overgrown buckteeth, asserting a more aggressive presence than the self-contained upper half.

Superimposed Elements Contained Within a Square is perhaps the most elegant work. A large square painted light gray has a smaller square at its center, inside of which are two large trapezoids, which together make a parallelogram, and two small triangles. One of each pair is white and the other gray, and they're arranged so as to leave a tiny triangular area empty at either side of the smaller square. I eventually figured out that the central shapes represent one parallelogram superimposed on an identical one rotated 180 degrees; the two triangles are the only part of the rotated shape that would be visible.

The two triangular "holes" are part of what makes Superimposed Elements distinctive, even dramatic; but I was more impressed by the work's symmetry, by the superimposition of the two identical geometric figures. Though Carter's textured surfaces emphasize the touchability and physicality of his objects, the precise geometry of his forms gives the work a conceptual dimension. By balancing a figure with its inversion, by making works that hover between two and three dimensions, by treating empty space as part of the image, Carter questions the privileging of any one perspective over another. At times his work suggests a kind of relativism: everything implies its opposite, and either interpretation is equally valid.

Carter's works, with one foot in the world of perfect Euclidean forms, never leave the realm of geometry. In them abstract shapes imply ideas. Few artists are likely to seem more different from Carter than Allen Stringfellow, whose collages actively deny Carter's precise logic. If Carter's work encourages reflection, Stringfellow's urge the viewer to start dancing.

Carter's art neatly melds opposites, but no such easy or systematic pattern emerges from Stringfellow's 24 collages at Nicole Gallery. Elmer's Bar B Q Party, depicting a large number of people enjoying themselves, is a near-riotous explosion of color and rhythm. Stringfellow uses a panoply of representational modes, shifting from one to another with the ease of a wildly eclectic jazz musician. Faces are colored-paper cutouts, and Stringfellow--an African-American--takes care to use several shades of brown. Clothing varies from colored paper, sometimes with buttons or stripes drawn on, to photograph fragments of clothes, to photo fragments of other things. Trees are crinkled green tissue paper. Two tablecloths are represented by pieces of actual cloth. And, as in most of the collages, many sections are painted by Stringfellow in watercolor.

Stringfellow doesn't hesitate to mix systems of perspective as well. In Elmer's Bar B Q Party the cutout figures at the rear are arranged conventionally, with a receding perspective, but the foreground tablecloths are laid down flat, as if seen directly from above. Colored cutouts of tasty-looking dishes, some seen from above and some from the side, add to the contradiction.

In Western representational art, illusion is created through a certain consistency. If we understand colored-paper cutouts as clothing, what are we to make of the clothing of an adjacent figure made of cutout photos? The sky in Twins Little Bad Boys is of crumpled blue tissue paper, but on it are cutout photos of clouds, each in the shape of a single cloud but containing parts of many different clouds. Behind the six elaborately costumed boys is a color photo of a wooden fence, on which Stringfellow has scrawled graffiti with a marker. Just as the viewer settles into a particular convention of illusion, some bit of the collage changes the whole symbolic system. The effect is ecstatic; one is constantly being taken out of wherever one was and deposited in a different place.

Though he's done drawings and watercolors all his life, Stringfellow only took up collage in the 80s. He acknowledges the great influence of Romare Bearden, but Stringfellow's works are even denser, using more diverse materials. A Chicagoan born in Champaign, Illinois, in 1923, the artist dates his interest in art to early childhood: he remembers liking the designs at the quilting bees his grandmother took him to, and later being impressed by the jazz he heard at clubs his father owned. Religion has also been a part of his life since boyhood: "Jazz and religion both have a rocking, moving feeling," he told me. "Both have rhythm." The quilts depicted in Miss Molly & Holly With the Quilting Bee Ladies reminded me of the African textiles whose ecstatically unpredictable geometries were one source of the African-American quilt-making tradition.

Jazz is a direct influence on many of his works. In Chicago Jazz City the trumpets and trombones all point in different directions, and almost nothing else in the picture is parallel to any of them. The picture's crowded, contrasting shapes--a dense skein of curved and straight lines and striped and checkered clothing patterns--seem ready to burst right out of the image. And in fact they do. A head or foot or shoulder or curtain extends a bit beyond the top, sides, and bottom of the rectangle containing the image on a white sheet of paper. This "violation" of geometry would never occur in Carter's work, where it would just muddy things; Stringfellow cares less about "logic" than about surprise and energy, even if they produce a momentary confusion.

Stringfellow framed each work himself, and the frames are elaborately, elegantly rectilinear. Chicago Jazz City is surrounded by a red line on white paper as well as the multiple concentric rectangles of its frame. But these symmetrical frames never seem to limit the collages' rhythms--instead it's almost as if Stringfellow were using them to demonstrate the greater power of his works' chaotic energy.

Contrasting or contradictory elements within each Carter and Stringfellow work prevent it from becoming a perfectly self-enclosed aesthetic object: Carter appeals to the logical mind, while Stringfellow rejuvenates daily seeing and living. For me neither experience is complete in itself, but since the two galleries are only a block apart, one can easily see the two shows together.

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