The Whole World in Their Hands | Art Review | Chicago Reader

The Whole World in Their Hands 

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Brenden Clenaghen

at Zolla/Lieberman, through April 17

Howard Hersh

at Gwenda Jay/Addington, through April 27

When I was young, my friends and I would sometimes describe great films as "cosmic," partly in self-parody of our enthusiasms. But some abstract art is cosmic in a more literal way. The patterns in Brenden Clenaghen's seven paintings at Zolla/Lieberman and in Howard Hersh's ten at Gwenda Jay/Addington seem to stretch beyond the pictures' borders, as if these works were mere fragments of an imagined universe.

Clenaghen often uses spheres, frequently in the form of raised dots. Deeper is both various and all of a piece, including grids of small raised dots and larger, irregularly distributed ones. The greenish gray surface on which they sit is mottled by darker clouds filled with squiggly blue lines. All these patterns continue right up to the edges of the panel, and this, along with the lack of a self-enclosed composition, suggests we're seeing only part of an endless expanse.

One is tempted to apply the word "oceanic" to such art. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud attributes oceanic feelings to a desire to return to the womb--but there's nothing quite that weighty at work here. For one thing, Clenaghen's paintings can be humorous. Candy colors in The Monitors modify the vastness evoked by its vertical bands of dots, and the circles filled with red lines are, well, a bit goofy: the artist doesn't seem to be taking himself too seriously.

Clenaghen says he didn't intend any references to astronomy but instead thinks of "decorative patterns in houses" and the dots in advertising photos. A native of Portland, Oregon, born in 1968, he was influenced by Andy Warhol and R. Crumb in high school; after receiving a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, he lived on the Oregon coast for two years. He learned fresco painting while studying in Rome in 1998, and says another source of inspiration was a stint as a housepainter, which also involved caulking and spackling. For the work here, he applies a layer of joint compound to a wood panel before painting it, creating a surface like fresco's wet plaster that permits pigments to bleed into it, then adds multiple layers of joint compound, creating a depth effect.

Many of Clenaghen's pieces combine nongeometrical patterns with the more ordered geometries of a home interior in various ratios. Overall the dots in Glamour in the Snow are more regularly organized than in the other works: many are grouped into circles or form arcs that extend across the whole picture--and presumably beyond. Floating shapes that look like comic-strip speech balloons add humor. Yet the humor feeds back into the cosmic: because the artificial, orderly patterns of arcs and vertical lines seem amusingly arbitrary, we give more weight to the irregular elements--to the larger but less obviously organized whole.

Howard Hersh's pieces, most made up of several conjoined panels, also evoke the decorative but nod to the eternal: the curvy shapes in Junket 3 suggest floral wallpaper or upholstery. These patterns are actually digital prints collaged onto aluminum, with paint both underneath and over them, and they're repeated--perhaps larger, fainter, or flipped--in various panels or in the rectangles within the panels, suggesting a kind of continuity whether the background is yellow green or blue gray. And because no specific flowers or plants are depicted, the work evokes nature's essence.

Hersh, who now lives in San Francisco, was born in Los Angeles in 1948. In the late 60s he quit his junior-college art studies to live in Haight-Ashbury, and later on in various communes in California and New Mexico, where for a time he earned a living making jewelry. More influential than the work of other artists, he says, is the time he spent playing in the woods as a child; in his art he hopes to represent "this interlocking interconnected organism, the universe," as "just one big thing--there are no separations between anything."

Such sentiments might sound like the mushy-headed relics of Hersh's counterculture past, but his precise forms actually accomplish his goals. Like Clenaghen's patterns, Hersh's imply a movement out of the work's narrow rectangle, both in the picture plane and in depth. Cradle of Civilization is broken down into several rectangular areas, with curved forms crossing the lines between them, created by pouring the paint rather than applying it with brushes--Hersh's way of producing shapes akin to nature's ("You can't draw a shape as beautiful as nature does it"). Painting in layers, he creates a mysterious depth that adds resonance to his forms. The width of the work is crossed by a curvy rendition of a long tendril, which continues beyond the left edge and recedes into the background at the right; like Clenaghen's vertical bands of dots, this shape suggests a continuity beyond the picture's borders. The whole has the feel of a living organism that's dynamic rather than static--expansive and mutable rather than a single unified being.

Whole One 1 also implies more than it shows. Four square panels are arranged to create an empty rectangular center. Hersh (who once considered architecture as a career) says that grids and geometrical forms are his way of representing the products of humans, and here his vertical lines do lead beyond the picture's borders. But several faint curved bands suggest a spiral around the small, empty center, focusing our attention on Hersh's true subject, the void that evokes an undepictable wholeness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.

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