Accent the Negative

Positive Space at New BLK Gallery a study in contradiction

What occupies Positive Space in the New BLK Gallery’s show may get all the attention, but its negative space is what largely gives the artwork its significance. While some of the paintings and sculpture of Justin Beller and digital prints of Daniel Muller strain a bit toward beauty and flirt with the decorative, many more excel because of their use of positive, negative space. The tactful use of negative space in art can alter one’s perception and even create a desired emotion or illusion, making that work even more interesting beyond its pleasing aesthetic. It can even complete the work or take the viewer into another dimension. Think of it as “the road not taken” or “things left unsaid” that often define one as much as their opposite. In art as in film, for example, it is tempting for an artist to complete or finish a work for the viewer raised to believe art must be pleasing to the eye only, or make sense before it be valued. Many area artists know that an enlightened audience can demand and handle more, but only some are willing to risk a possible commission or sale in the bargain. Most satisfying of all is that work of art whose use of negative space lends an appreciation and understanding beyond the moment or outside the frame. Beller and Muller share the former’s gallery space, Studio B in Benson and have often collaborated on art and other cultural projects and events. A bit of a vagabond and bon vivant, as well as a self-taught artist, judging by his work on display in Positive Space, Beller approaches art first as a sensual experience and second as a conceptual one, playing one against the other, especially as to first impressions and perception. Muller, conversely, is more traditionally educated and his more figurative and representational work, given his commissions in commercial and contemporary culture, have that certain pop and snap that sells in those markets. In Positive Space he and Beller again collaborated to create a mostly satisfying exhibit that emphasizes sophisticated urban design and taste — and for the most part, a shared interest in negative space as well. There are exceptions. For instance, the first floor gallery space, the reception area, is dominated by Beller’s large polyurethane and raw pigment on panel paintings “SS,” “Valve” and “2030.” The titles give away little of their abstract expressionism, but all three effectively resemble stone surfaces in a pleasing if somewhat too polished palette. The work is quite elemental and fetching, especially the metallic, blue-copper tone and texture of “2030” and the more subtle, luminescent blue-green of “Valve.” Yet, while these two pieces capture the eye of the viewer, “SS” and the odd-man out here, “Antlers,” appeal more to the imagination. The “problem” with “2030” and “Valve” is that they are finished works, perhaps too so. The former is so like aged copper it might as well be that. This is admirable in technique and process, but it borders on decoration. Likewise, the aquatic “Valve” reinforces its packaged “reality” with a marble-like frame that diminishes its asymmetrical louvers that entice on their own. “SS” shares Beller’s love of elemental glazed texture, but it stretches across its diptych and more than hints at a molten negative space above its flow, thus more engaging. But not nearly as engaging, or intriguing as the nicely illustrated, composed and conceptual “Antlers.” The attention to detail is impressive. Because the antlers sit at the bottom of an otherwise blank canvas, the mind is able to wonder as to their source even as the eye wanders off the page. If the work were traditionally framed, this would not be so, a nice positive use of negative space. This visual motif continues downstairs in the main gallery with several of Beller’s more painterly works, but none more obviously so than “Vapor.” In this piece, a black, menacing liquid bubbles up to its ochre colored namesake. Had the vapor been less pronounced, plopped as it were at the top of the panel, and more gradual in its gradation, smog-like, the use of negative effect would have been subtle and challenging as in the similar “Pacific Bed.” Still “Vapor” does effectively “talk” to Muller’s imposing digital print on wood triptych, “Hair,” on the opposite wall which flows across three panels from right to left. “Hair” is a nice sympathetic segue to his own use of negative space in a series of affecting smaller digital prints, #6-13. Some are simply framed in wood, a few not. Again, except for one, “Building,” the frames seem superfluous, inhibiting the expansive nature of each. The objects in “Trees, Field, Flowers, Hands” and “Pink Trees” extend into the frame from below, partially out of view. Consequently, they look and feel less like part of a whole and more like an intrusion. The imagination doesn’t soar. Perhaps that’s what Muller intended. A better use of his frame occurs with “Building,” a personal favorite that depicts its namesake in all its run-down, ragged beauty. This “Building” is anchored to the ground and not off the page, allowing the frame and negative space above to provide an almost elegiac tone to an edifice that isn’t going anywhere and whose best days are behind it. A more traditional use of positive negative space can be found in the frameless “Escalator” and “Road” which are virtual freefalls and mind-trips into oblivion. In each our point of view extends beyond the vaporous background into the white gallery walls. Less object oriented, each is a study in perspective and design. The biggest surprises in this show are Beller’s intriguing wall and stand-alone painted sculptures that also experiment with spatial perspective and perception. Though several panels fade nicely in and out of their wall settings, the most effective feature side surfaces of colorful geometric patterns that when viewed alter one’s appreciation dramatically. But none more so than Beller’s twin “Towers I & II,” identical in size and form, but whose geometric color schemes misshape the first and reinforce the second. It’s a clever illusion beautifully rendered especially in the latter as this tower proudly wears a shimmering complimentary and contrasting color coat which changes its palette from every angle. Because of their ability to alter and enhance perception, Beller’s sculptural designs may be the ultimate contradiction in this show’s positive use of negative space. Positive Space continues through Jan. 28, at the New BLK Gallery in the Old Market at 1213 Jones St. Visit thenewblk.com.

posted at 01:02 am
on Thursday, January 13th, 2011

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