Abstractions and Automatons | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Abstractions and Automatons 

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Jay Kelly

at Roy Boyd

through August 21

Kim Joon

at Walsh

through September 4

At first glance, the six yellow disks on a reddish brown background in Jay Kelly's Untitled #1157--one of his 26 luminous, almost mystical small drawings at Roy Boyd--seem like ordinary geometric abstractions. But only two of the circles are whole; the other four are partly cut off, suggesting that this is part of a larger field of circles that continues beyond the painting's border. The spacing of the circles is a bit irregular, and each is a slightly different color. The tiny straight black lines that traverse the composition make a Cartesian grid, which also suggests a larger field. The edges of the circles are soft and their colors fuzzy, creating a Rothko-like floating effect that makes it hard to see the image as two-dimensional. Dynamic rather than static, this work resists our culture's tendency to reduce objects to consumables by seeming less a thing in itself than part of something else.

Kelly also uses traditional symbols to a different effect than one might expect. The perfectly symmetrical black cross against a light tan background in Untitled #1127 isn't a Christian cross and doesn't have quite the right proportions for the Red Cross's logo or for the white cross at the center of the Swiss flag. Denying viewers specific referents pushes them to think about the impact of symbols, particularly since the composition is made asymmetrical by an almost white band at the bottom. Untitled #1243 also challenges expectations, giving us a maze of nearly white rectangles on a bluish background that at first made me think of sunlight cast on a wall through a window. But there are way too many rectangles, and they're of different shades. Almost every element of traditional abstract painting--the sense of certitude, the idea that specific shapes are being used for specific reasons and that perfection in design can be achieved--is being undermined here.

Like the paintings of some of the abstract artists he admires, including Rothko and Agnes Martin, Kelly's works have a mysterious aura. His colors and shapes seem to float off the surface, becoming more like mental images than physical objects. His unusual technique accounts for some of this effect--these works were all made by rubbing dry pastel pigments, which he mixed himself, into vellum. He says he likes that you "can't see the artist's hand" in his works, can't tell exactly how they're made.

The path Kelly took to becoming an abstract artist helps explain his ability to make something new of a genre that's been thoroughly worked over. He grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, making realistic drawings and paintings as a child. Figuring he couldn't make a living as a fine artist, he studied advertising at Syracuse University. "Fortunately," he says, he was fired from his first advertising job. He soon found a gallery that wanted his photorealist paintings of industrial New Jersey landscapes. Key to his brand of trompe l'oeil was learning to paint with soft edges that imitated the look of a photographic print, and by the early 90s he was getting more and more meticulous, often taking almost a year to complete a small watercolor.

While photographing the locales he intended to paint, Kelly began seeing them "graphically," in two dimensions. "The rust was this beautiful splash of orange against the blue sky," he says. "I started looking at how beautiful were the colors in the natural world." His shift to making abstract paintings isn't surprising. In school he'd developed a love for 50s and 60s ads with "a lot of white space and sparing use of type." He also admired modernist architecture and midcentury Scandinavian pottery, which he calls "Asian-influenced, very pared down." But there's nothing flat about his abstract paintings, partly because pigment on vellum creates a curious illusion of depth. The glowing red background in Untitled #1157 fills the space beautifully, while the disks assert their own strange presence throughout the field, not least because the soft edges bleed into the background. Untitled #1125 is cluttered with dozens of small disks in blue, white, and yellow; but many overlap, and they're so soft-edged they partly disappear into the gray background, like lights in fog.

All of these images refuse to resolve into static designs that can be taken in at a glance--the viewer has to stop and try to figure them out. Four of the pairs of blue and yellow rectangles in Untitled #1223 overlap, producing lighter blends of blue and yellow. Each blend is a little different from the others, which is illogical, since we "know" that the same colors overlapping produce the same hue. Kelly seems to be suggesting that our perception of color and form isn't predictable and will often defy expectations. You only have to look carefully at the world to know that he's right.

In contrast to the airy insubstantiality of Kelly's paintings, Kim Joon's 21 works at Walsh are confrontationally, even disturbingly physical. One of three artists in "Inked," which the gallery describes as "a multi-media show exploring the art making process of tattooing," Kim shapes pieces of sponge into curvy surfaces that suggest the human body, covers them with flesh-colored fabric, and paints on tattoo designs. The designs range from a smiling Mickey Mouse in Mickey to two staffs of a musical score in How Deep Is Your Love... to a Buddhist image of a hand holding a flower in Prajna.

Kim says, "I am interested in tattoo as a metaphor for hidden desire or a kind of compulsion engraved into human consciousness." But his painted body parts are creepy. They have bulges and belly buttons, but almost nothing is recognizably human--and some fragments have more than one belly button. A tattoo on a person can bring fetishistic attention to a single part of the body, and Kim's weird fragments lift this notion into the hyperbolic.

In one of Kim's two videos, Hey Jimi--based on a photograph of himself that he manipulated digitally--a man with Jimi Hendrix tattooed on his bare back watches a one-minute clip of the musician on a monitor. The man's body twists and contorts to the beat, as if being reshaped by the music. Kim says that when he first heard Hendrix's music at 15 it "tattooed his soul," but it's not clear that the man shown here even has a soul. This figure, which repeats the same twist again and again, is an automaton, making the video a witty comment on the way mass culture can destroy individuality.

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