Two things need to be said about “The Last Gesture” at David Hall Fine Art in Wellesley, MA. The first is that this is an exhibition of marked sophistication that credits the seven participating artists. The second is that it was curated by Charlie Finch, who has done for art criticism what Glenn Beck has done for political discourse – namely, to couch issues in language too inflamed and erroneously judgmental to engender thoughtful discussion.
For example, a recent essay at Artnet referred to the “stupid stains” of Helen Frankenthaler, called Thornton Willis “an old guy who until recently was noticed for aborting one of the trickiest shapes to Ab Up, the triangle,” and worked in a dozen other digs that were equally astute. His authorial intemperance, incoherence, and incontinence would have made him one of the greatest anonymous Internet trolls of all time. But he esteemed himself an art critic, and missed his true calling.
Thus I advise you to wait until after you’ve had a long look at the art therein before reading Finch’s essay for “The Last Gesture.” In the context of a show of abstract and abstracted paintings, it’s a disservice to apply a well-understood term like “gesture” to hard-edge works by James Angell and George Negroponte or to the decorative surrealism of Melinda Hackett. In fact, it’s a cliché of both art writing and curating to take such terms and expand them until they mean everything and nothing. Hackett, according to Finch, “refines the gestural ball into an invocation of microscopic space as the last refuge of color.” Virva Hinnemo’s “mournful washes appear to wipe away gesture forever.”
The ostensible theme of the exhibition might be best regarded, then disregarded, as Finch’s attempt to channel his roiling cognitive slurry. The work itself doesn’t need it.
David Hall Fine Art is a new venture that seeks, in part, to rehabilitate the neglected reputations of able modernists like Ralph Coburn and Robert Natkin. “The Last Gesture” dovetails with this mission by featuring a group of painters about equal in caliber, analogous in style, and a generation or two younger. Since only three of the seven artists work in a gestural manner, the exhibition instead coheres around similarities of scale and artistic assurance. Most of the pieces date from 2010 and 2011, so all of the artists are hard at work. The ambiance is one of refreshing maturity. That said, the inspiration lags here and there.
Works by Matt Magee are crisply painted, diagrammatic abstractions that contain enough hand-drawn variations to come off as charming instead of schematic. All of them employ no more than two colors at a time. I usually take this as a sign of someone congenitally unsure about how to handle color, but the hues have enough subtlety for Magee to escape that charge. He pulls back the pink in Anemone and the green in Tunis (both 2011) from acidity to warmth. Considering his stylistic constraints, his pictures are nevertheless playful. Anemone evokes automotive flame jobs as well as sea life. Tunis could represent a musical score composed of disused cartoon word balloons. Conduit, which consists entirely of seven stacks of blue crescents on a white background, throws off an Op Art vibration as minute inconsistencies in the shapes lend the work a noticeable wiggliness.
Taking clear inspiration from Josef Albers, James Angell creates a simple abstract composition and reworks the hues from painting to painting until he deems the motif sufficiently explored. Paloma and Marina (both 2011) use precisely the same format, vertical bars with an X of chevrons in the middle, but the teal, khaki, and brick red of the former and the plum, lavender, and aqua of the latter give them entirely different atmospheres. Hanging next to Magees, the Angells seem to want for a dose of unruliness. Hanging next to the Angells, the Magees call out for a third color.
George Negroponte comes out of a long background of gestural abstract paintings, but his recent works of collaged wallpaper on wood have a clarity that surpasses them. It occurred to me that they have an Ikea aesthetic even before I learned that the artist had recently moved to Stockholm, but it works in their favor: bold shapes, tasteful patterns, a canny sense of texture, and the attractive presence of wood throughout. The three pieces in “Gesture” are diptychs, two panels set upon shelves that are part of the work, and leaned against the wall. Swimmer from 2010 is especially engaging, a jazzy yet spare composition of red, beige, and taupe shapes on a background of wood stained with white paint.
Drawings in colored pencil and watercolor on vellum by Emily Weiskopf are the most overtly gestural works in the show, but probably the least effective. They’re trying to get too much mileage out of an arc drawn repeatedly and with unconvincing purpose. They aren’t unlikeable, and the architectural effect of Shoots and Ladders and Cathedral (both 2010) is compelling, but the other pieces are wan and a little addled.
Melinda Hackett’s trippy abstractions recall both microbiology and 1960s design. Their surfaces feel thin, but the boisterous whimsy makes up for it to some degree. Through them we appear to be looking at slides full of gregarious bacteria with smashing fashion sense. The critters afloat in Swatch #10 (2010) sport dazzling patterns of organic shapes but couture colors, and lounge in the grooviest bubble-world ever enjoyed by unicellular organisms. Hackett comes close to looking out of place in this exhibition, but I can’t fault her verve.
Ilse Murdock practices a kind of process-oriented landscape painting in which the lower edge serves as the palette. That sounds gimmicky, but the image and the materials merge into each other in an intriguing manner that forcibly reminds you that you’re looking at oils even as you take in the depicted scenery. Octagon from 2010 is only eight inches square, but it feels dense with probing decision as pink flowers and a green field rise into being from a crust of pure paints below.
Virva Hinnemo is a painter with extraordinary sensitivity and a gift for maximizing the impact of a palette that hardly deviates from mauve, umber, and slate. Her spaces recall the existential landscapes of Philip Guston, but hers are cooler and more inviting if no less anxious. The brushstrokes themselves look reticent. It shouldn’t be possible to compose a painting from as little material as went into In the Rectangle (2011) but the result is wholly satisfying, a gentle two-tone wash held together by inconspicuous daubs whose colors fade like flowers in a fog. Untitled (Square for L.F.) has a tougher look. (Does the angle on the right side of the square homage the trash-can-lid-carrying arms of Guston?) But it’s a toughness derived from Hinnemo’s ability to put down a little paint with a lot of authority.
“The Last Gesture” is an exhibition that survived its origins, succeeding on the talent of Charlie Finch’s circle if not Finch himself. But it still counts. I’ll think back on it when Finch launches his next screed into the world. In the meantime we ought to keep our eye on David Hall, who is likely to merit considerable future interest.