Work by: Billy Gruner, Deborah Dancy, Ellen Weider, Jason Travers, Michel Carmantrand, Ulla Pedersen
(in alphabetical order by first name)
Painting is an animal that lives and thrives under a very big sky. It is eternally half feral, adapting to the world that it finds itself in but refusing to be fully domesticated by it (even though it has been known to enjoy the privileged status of being hung on a freshly painted wall). And despite multiple claims to the contrary, painting has not yet died. Quite the opposite- it's currently having a great deal of success and is arguably more confident and unapologetic than ever before about what it is and what it can do. It would be a mistake to think of this achievement as somehow requiring the exclusion of another art form. Embracing painting does not mean rejecting photography, sculpture, or digital art; it only means embracing painting, with all that it offers as well as its shortcomings. And it is the acceptance of both its attributes and limitations that opens the door a little wider for the guest of personal expression to be welcomed in.
One area of exploration within the world of painting that has held my attention for decades is the impulse to reduce and abstract. It’s a challenging and ultimately intimate experience to interact with a modified surface that simply refuses (or almost refuses) to illustrate something that we could immediately recognize and attach to a story. Instead, the message is in the materials, colors, lines, and textures themselves. The meaning is about what happens when we are faced with an image that asks us to look without naming, to experience without the help of a narrative, to be present without the expectation of clarity.
I recently invited six artists to participate in The Semi-Finalist’s second summer group post. It’s an international gathering with strong, independent voices that I admire so much. They approach their materials from varied- but always personal- points of view, and each is engaged with what could be considered issues of contemporary abstraction, from the playfully suggestive to the insistently non objective. I want to thank Billy Gruner (Sydney, Australia), Deborah Dancy (Storrs, CT, USA), Ellen Weider (New York, NY, USA), Jason Travers (Providence, RI, USA), Michel Carmantrand (b. France, working in Berlin, Germany) and Ulla Pedersen (Copenhagen, Denmark) for their generous visual and written contributions to this post. Their work moves me both emotionally and intellectually and I’m thrilled to feature each of them here on The Semi-Finalist.
Nonobjectform (Art & Architecture Series), 2021, metal and wood,
approximately 24" x 24"
Billy Gruner's description of his work and his process comes in the form of a video at: Nonobjectform.
(At one point Gruner references RNOP, which is the Reductive Non Objective Project and can be found on facebook.)
(Storrs, CT, USA)
Mapping an Afterthought, 2021, oil on canvas, 38" x 34"
Smoke Signals, 2021, oil on canvas, 66" x 60"
Trapped #10, 2020, acrylic on paper
Age of Aquarius #1, 2021, acrylic on paper
I move back and forth between painting on canvas and works on paper. 2020 was brutal, and the work took on an agitated, fragmented sensibility- there was a sense of the elements being incomplete, like a puzzle where the last pieces are missing. As a concept this became more elemental in the paintings- with color playing a more significant role. I enjoy having lushness meet with the abrupt and the unexpected.
It's Now or Never, 2021,oil on canvas, 22" x 22"
Morass, 2021, acrylic on paper
(New York, NY, USA)
Short Story, 2019, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Triplex, 2020, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Square One, 2021, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Open House, 2021, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
My images float in an undefined, ambiguous space. Some suggest houses, buildings, rooms, and other architectural or geometric structures. There are no inhabitants, but the structures themselves sometimes evoke human presence and human interactions, and can also be seen as metaphors for internal states of being. My paintings explore issues of isolation and connection; whether they are interpreted as pure abstractions or as self-contained narratives, an ironic humor with a meditative, existential, transcendental bent informs them.
Weider's studio in NY, NY.
(Providence, RI, USA)
Cathedral, 2021, oil on canvas, 35"x49"
Liminal State, 2019, oil on canvas, 36"x58"
Masquerade, 2021, oil on canvas, 35"x34"
Dreamer, 2018, oil on canvas, 48"x109"
I began painting following in the tradition of plein air painters who studied light and color differences embodied in the landscape. Though literal references to nature have diminished in my paintings, I continue to seek a deep visual connection rooted in Romantic impulses that began in 19th century experience.
I seem to always be preoccupied with the concept of part-to-whole. It’s a kind of visual game that I enjoy playing as long as the solutions are visually enticing, or even perplexing. Many of my paintings are diptychs and other multi-panel configurations, creating relationships that impart a sense of tension. An interesting byproduct of using multi-panel configurations is how the canvases veer away from a traditional illusionistic picture space and into the realm of being objects. I have become interested in the way the canvases imply a more sculptural experience. I like my paintings to play with the viewer’s spatial awareness, rather than having them hang passively on the wall. Though they may appear to be simple on first glance, given time I would like them to slowly open to the senses.
The Frog Prince, 2021, oil
Travers in his Providence, RI studio.
(b. France; currently living in Berlin, Germany)
STAR'S CASE, 2020, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
TOTEM, 2021, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
RESTRAINED BURNING, 2021, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
Flashback: it was in 2011, and at the invitation of my gallerist in this era, that i curated a group exhibition for the first time at the Zweigstelle-Berlin gallery. Other ones followed over the years. This movement (commitment), which involves quite a few studio visits, seems not to need to stop. It’s here that i allow myself to approach my point, let's say, from the ‘outside’, insofar as this activity has proved extremely nourishing, both aesthetically and humanly, since year after year i have been able to gauge the grandiose narcissistic indifference of colleagues as much as their wonderful ability to achieve a profusion of forms that i would have been hard pressed to conceive on my own.
The upcoming in-person group show, which should take place (if the virus plays it soft) at the end of April 2021, brings together ten artists and is titled “Absent.” This time around there will be more objects and sculptures than actual ‘classical’ paintings, which is a change I couldn't foresee, certainly due to a kind of personal modification, this being probably the consequence of everything i have seen and done here.
MIND THE GAP, 2020, mixed media, 67" x 67" x 1.6"
In the same vein, for example, the titles (therefore the relationship to language) have become more important recently, to the point that it can make me decide to paint even if i don't really need special inputs for this. The title can become the subject, the motif, which has never been the case so far. The effects of this slight twist in perspective are that it is no longer the previous practice that decides the method and the tools, but the object, the motif, the subject of the painting to come. But nevertheless, this shift must come from further back in time, since it has been several years since i stopped working in a series, or even imagining that the next painting would be in part the result of previous paintings, that it will resemble the others in one way or another. It seems to me today that the dialectic brings me more fruit than the sequential arrangement. Actually, i'm not at all a specialist painter, quite the contrary. The works are supposed to capture and reflect the most distant echoes, whether these signals come from the history of art (which does not prevent History from being stories, from my point of view) and or from reality, political and social, past or future.
So, as much as possible, no visual identity, but a permanent critique and self-criticism, insofar as it seems to me that a successful painting contains the elements necessary for its destruction in and through the eye and brain of the ‘other’. The ‘specificity’ of each painting is therefore not a specificity linked to aesthetic presuppositions, but an approach making each of the paintings a singular object, aiming at an individual goal, which would be to cross, to go through, to percolate as many different mirrors as possible.
Caption: The artist fumbling on the table in search of some tool.
Caption: The artist pictured from the studio's window as he was about to go buy food in his familiar Neukölln district.
Untitled (Wall Sculpture), 2021, acrylic paint on MDF and canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas and MDF
“I work with acrylic paint on many different surfaces, including canvas, wood, paper and cardboard. My process is reductive. When painting a composition, I tend toward a limited color palette, often reducing the composition to minimal, hard-edged shapes on solid-colored fields. When making my assembled pieces, I cut shapes away and then re-combine them into new configurations, using both the positive elements (the shape I have cut out) and the negative elements (the part that was left behind). I use everything, juxtaposing notions of "form and non-form," and always leaving room for discovery and surprise.”
Untitled paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas