Conversation about abstraction is bubbling. Surface Level only touches the top of it.
A full survey of the vast practice encompassing abstracted thought is nearly impossible for one gallery to undertake. Contemporary artists have countless sources to build upon, be they historical movements such as the New York School, the Minimalists, the Neo Expressionists, etc; or simply peer conversations in reaction to the recent focus on the figure. Regardless of impetus, today is an exciting time for abstract art, and Surface Level showcases eight artists at the forefront of abstraction: Amie Cunat, Brennen Steines, Courtney Childress, Jillian Mayer, Justine Hill, Kennedy Yanko, Nsenga Knight, and Ye Qin Zhu.
Within the exhibition, each artist demonstrates the significance of their work’s materiality through an acute sensitivity to surface. Charged color and methodical processes reoccur among much of the work in Surface Level. Amie Cunat’s Tournesol, Opal uses sharply painted geometric and biomorphic form to create an interplay between recognition and abstraction. In direct dialogue with the Chicago Imagists, her work’s hard edges translate graphically through digital reproduction, however her consideration for the perceptive ability of color as well as its surface tactility commands the importance in the experience of standing with an artwork. Although Brennen Steines’ work shares a similar chromatic vibrancy to Cunat’s, his paintings have been constructed through a back-and-forth, reductive-and-additive process that reveals layers of paint referencing a geologic time scale. His work talks to the practice of Kennedy Yanko, who uses found materials and through a very physical process of bending and buffing, find the final object’s form. These works, although sculptural, refer to Yanko’s history as a painter with her signature use of a paint skin that provides an extra burst of color. Like these, much of the work on view grapples with the idea of the abstract beyond the constraints of the rectangle. This is seen in the work of Justine Hill, Jillian Mayer, and Ye Qin Zhu. Hill has been expanding the practice of non-rectilinear painting, post-Elizabeth Murray and Frank Stella’s deep exploration of what painterly space can be. Mayer’s figures are deceptively organic in appearance. The work is made with both whimsy and function, providing the viewer with respite from social media consumption. Visually similar to the work of Mayer, Ye Qin Zhu’s work delves deep into storytelling while using abstraction to hook the viewer.
The show is very much an exploration in formalism, but the work is not devoid of subject matter. The materiality often leads the viewer to the message, as Zhu asks the viewer to look well beyond the surface. In Courtney Childress’s gestural work–made of felt on canvas–a feminist reading of the composition is closely connected to its materiality. While Queens Museum Fellow Nsenga Knight uses photographic space and abstraction to explore and challenge traditional boundaries of race, nationhood, and religion and create wholly new constructions that broaden our collective imaginations.
Surface Level is a brief thesis on the importance of abstraction in our present moment.