By now, it's safe to say abstract art has its own tradition. The pioneers of the genre were hammering out their manifestoes over 50 years ago. Their accomplishments survived the initial backlash and they seem, in a sense, to be re-emerging. Everyone today has the cliched image of an abstract painting in his or her brain, or, if not, has seen good gestural abstract work while watching an episode of Frasier.
Of course, abstract art's re-emergence has taken on a very different mood than its emergence. The early days of abstract expressionism were heady and highly charged. There was a desperation following the wars for new foundations and new subject matter. The American painter Adolph Gottlieb put it this way: "The situation was so bad that I know I felt free to try anything, no matter how absurd it seemed." Whatever happened was going to be drastic. And it was in America more than anywhere else that it happened. Artists like Pollock, Newman, Still, Kline, and Frankenthaler didn't just drop traditional subject matter, they dropped subject matter all together. The emphasis wasn't on depictions of reality or embodied meanings, it was emphatically about the reality of painting itself. The execution or process of painting, along with the materials of painting were the reality of painting. But more than anything, it was a revolt and the artists involved became embodiments of heroic defiance.
The question today is, how does gestural abstraction fare when you take away the audacity and newness of it all? Sadly, sometimes not as well. At the same time, maybe the loss of such grand expectations has opened the way for a more subtle and understated appreciation of this type of art.
As the genre developed, there were artists who tended toward self-expression and self-realization in their work. Their paintings worked more as a kind of existential evidence than as a strictly aesthetic experience. This artistic approach often emphasizes the process at the expense of the product. Conversely, there were artists who tended toward aesthetic expression. Their paintings worked as universal statements of form and balance in ways similar to music and mathematics. For abstract artists working in this vein, little has changed because boldness, audacity and fierce originality were never essential to it. I would put Boise artist Dave Thomas, whose new show, "Don't Take Me Alive," opened on April 6 (and goes until the end of the month) at J Crist Gallery, in the first camp. Thomas is currently a professor of painting at Boise State. Born in Fresno, California, he attended California Institute of the Fine Arts, where he earned both his BFA and MFA. Since that time he has lived and worked in Hollywood, in Montana, and now he calls Garden City home, where he has a studio set up in one of its art enclaves.
The work in Thomas' show has a light and bright palette, along with a looseness of line over an open, airy ground. Thomas attributes these qualities to time spent outdoors. The phrase "sky graffiti" pops into my head, although graffiti is usually rote work involving planned and often repeated gestures and Thomas' drawings and paintings have the highly experimental and intuitive qualities of gestural abstraction. But where most abstract work stresses the flat, two-dimensional surface of the picture plane, Thomas has created an open and airy ground where his gestural work seems almost suspended. Large watery swaths of blue hover in the background of some of the pieces like smears of sky. Hazes of orange and gray linger like whiffs of inversion and everything seems to be suspended in mid-air rather than fixed.
Thomas' paintings are inventive and interesting. They appear both dynamic and thoughtful, with a subtlety and lightheartedness that give them a sense of sanity as well. But they also show gestural abstraction rubbing up against its limitations--like a two-dimensional surface--the conscious avoidance of metaphor, illustration, or meaning in any conventional sense, and as I've mentioned, several decades of familiarity.
Now, before you get out the special stationery you save for hate mail and write me a long letter about "meaning" in an "unconventional" sense, or Freedom of Speech, or art's ultimately subjective nature, go see this show and write me a long letter about that. My point? It's difficult to put into words what an encounter with work like this does for you or to you--or to express how it's more than just screwing around with art supplies.
Exchanging e-mails with the artist, I was able to gather a kind of outline of his process. First, he takes on the blank white canvas and destroys its clean whiteness by spraying paint onto it or drawing on it with very little consideration for anything other than what might be in his head at the time. He describes it as a very physical activity. After Thomas has done that, he attempts, in his words, to save the canvas by mark making, painting and the decision-making process. It's as if working in the abstract requires a capability to follow signals or urges from somewhere inside oneself that rarely reach up to the surface. He characterized this plunge into the self as, "Diving, diving, diving, like a submarine away from the enemy."
It's like a diving submarine, and yet painting a diving submarine wouldn't be the same thing at all. Because if you're painting a diving submarine, you know what you're doing. An artist can create an image of a diving submarine and relate a message to a viewer about the artistic process, or an artist can grope down through the dark denying himself the communicative stability of illustration and allow things to happen that wouldn't have otherwise. In the first instance, the viewer's experience is of chief concern. In the second, it is the artist's experience that is most important. With the image of a diving submarine, the viewer receives the intended meaning while in the second instance, the viewer is presented with the strange evidence of someone else's adventure. It's as if someone said, "I had the most amazing dream," and then as a way of showing you what the experience was like, they took you into their bedroom and had you look at their twisted and tangled bed linens. It creates a strange experience for a viewer and one frequently marked by a lack of correspondence. For some things there may not be a better or a more direct way of expressing them. I know in this case, the evidence speaks louder than these words, so go see this show.