J Crist Gallery has inaugurated its brand new space at 17th and Fairview with brand new work on canvas and paper by Boise painter Christine Raymond, and the choice of artist is particularly fitting. Both the architecture and the art it showcases capture the essence of reductive formalism and the minimalist aesthetic, with strong horizontals and verticals rendered in clean lines and smooth surfaces providing an elegant, uncomplicated geometry. Their respective monumental forms have a lofty airiness to them that belies their hefty, subsurface supporting structure. In short, what we see are parallel worlds in two and three dimensions.
Just as an abundance of natural light is an integral part of the exhibition environment at Crist, so too is it a crucial ingredient in Raymond's art. Whereas the building's interior space orchestrates the play of light via a series of architectonic devices, in the paintings, this is accomplished through a meticulously selected and applied palette, and the contrast between dense layering of pigment and glistening, ethereal gold leaf. In neither case, however, does the careful manipulation of light completely eliminate the unexpected or the element of chance. Sharing these common attributes, the gallery and the art not only complement each other but practically form a unified Gesamtkunstwerke.
Minimalism is getting a lot of attention these days, with museums revisiting the subject with major surveys and artists demonstrating a revival of interest in its tenets and forms. The consensus is that minimalism's imprint on American visual culture has been essentially a permanent one since its arrival on the scene in the 1960s, especially in architecture and design. Although primarily associated with three-dimensional form, it has had its adherents in painting, too, many of whom have never wavered from their commitment to minimal abstraction. Raymond falls into this group, and her art reminds one of the in-your-space works of Frank Stella or Donald Judd in the way it strives to reconcile the sculptural and painterly strains of the minimalist project. Her canvases also recall the subtle paintings of Brice Marden and Agnes Martin.
By her own admission, Raymond is an artist obsessed with what she does. In her marriage of color-field painting and the minimalist grid, Raymond has found a vocabulary for expressing her preoccupation with aesthetic purity and platonic idealism. It is a rigorous art form that resonates with her. A romanticist, Raymond views painting as a spiritual activity, which may explain why her work has the precious quality of a religious icon. So much gold leaf hasn't been seen since the Byzantine era, and though her working methods sound incredibly painstaking, she nevertheless considers the process a meditative one, describing it as if it were a mystical experience. Like a monk cranking out elaborate, handwritten texts on vellum, Raymond is totally engrossed in her craft, single-mindedly working away in her studio, seemingly oblivious to what's taking place in the rest of the art world.
Although Raymond's palette has cooled down considerably in a number of these works, her complex technique has not changed. Her canvases are of dense, finely woven linen stretched over either deep stretchers or solid blocks of wood, upon which she builds a ground with dozens of layers of gesso, then sands the under-painting to create a fresco-like surface on which she paints in acrylics or gilds. Consequently, these paintings achieve a sculptural objecthood, not unlike Donald Judd's wall-mounted metal or painted boxes that became icons of minimalist art.
The gilded panels in particular have an architectural aspect. Gold leaf is so thin and malleable, it telegraphs whatever lies beneath, and the character of the plaster-like surface of the ground inevitably shows through. Raymond further textures the 23-karat gold with sand-washed silk, creating rhythmic, script-like patterning, and the edges of the leaf squares form a delicate, pencil-thin gridwork, achieving an archival look. When sunlight from the high-level gallery windows strikes the surface of the all-gold Meditation on Peace II, the affect is dazzling.
For her smaller works on paper, Raymond paints large sheets of rice paper called masa out of which she cuts sections to be applied to rectangles of gessoed gater board. Consequently, these have a freer, more relaxed quality than the acrylics on canvas, and are often paired with a cooler, platinum gold leaf to give them a more varied look.
Raymond continues to be influenced by the natural environment of Idaho, and her pieces embody the dichotomy of the region's intense, shifting skies balanced against the "austere beauty" of the high desert landscape. Her abstractions are also grounded in a thorough understanding of color theory and optics which she uses to great affect in manipulating the viewer's eye.
Raymond's romantic temperament is also evident in the poetic titles she assigns her pieces which frequently designate them as metaphors for various states of mind and nature. Awakenings I and II, Emergence, and The Subtle Nature of Being suggest arising thoughts and stages of awareness, while Time of Change, Sanctuary, and Return to the Garden hold out the promise of Arcadia. These literary efforts to take the art to another plane are a little too obvious and are symptomatic of the artist's proclivity for applying additional levels of meaning and significance onto the work, which, ultimately, adds nothing to the visual experience. The meditative calm and transcendent tenor of her art is self-evident.
On a deeper level, we can come away dissatisfied with Raymond's art. Obviously, these are extremely well-crafted works of material and surface beauty. If anything, they are guilty of the "visual hedonism" that critics have charged minimalism with. But the artist's obsession with process leaves the results feeling rather cold. Their preciousness and precision seem almost manufactured (which is the risk some minimal art runs) and even a little corporate. In the end, Raymond's paintings are enticing but not compelling; they do not hold us to them or resonate on a level beyond the superficial. Somewhere, the art loses contact with the viewer.
Christine Raymond's exhibit will be up through October 22 at J Crist Gallery, 223 S. 17th St., 336-2671, wwwjcrist.com.