.“Less is more.”
While cliché, this paradoxical truism is often offered as a remedy to that which has been deemed inflated, complicated, presumptuous, over-the-top, too much. When an endeavor takes on layers of complexity that overwhelm or alienate, the response is often, “Sometimes, less is more.” This diagnosis to simplify is a signal that breathing room is needed, the air has become polluted.
Around the middle of the 20th century, modern visual artists embraced this diagnosis and began the dismantling of the tradition of western art with its many-layered (and some would argue, burdensome) traditions and techniques. One strategy for dismantling was the intentional reduction of color, either in variety or hue. Gallery walls began to display monumental canvases of fields of solid color paired with confused viewers who tilted their heads, trying to make sense of the flattened surface. Perhaps most ambitiously deconstructive was the work of Robert Ryman who introduced the art world to square, white canvases painted… white. Not everyone understood or accepted this willful reduction of form. Too much was being thrown out. As Suzanne P. Hudson writes: “The feeling is that something has been sacrificed and devalued, whether tradition, method, or technical proficiency…” (Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint, 2009)
And yet, for the artists involved in this reductive approach, the result was anything but a simplification. In fact, for them it was an amplification of art’s most unique characteristics. The eschewing of tradition and technique in service to other disciplines (history, religion, politics) was art’s coming-of-age, it’s emancipation even.
While postmodernism has fractured (fragmented? divided?) the art world into countless art-making approaches, many current artists still utilize the tools of modernism in their creation of work. Recognizing the strength of form as an equally significant conveyor of content as representational imagery, abstraction as stayed in their vocabulary. In some cases, the “tools” of abstraction have been enlisted into the service of more traditional images.
One such tool is the reduction of color. Monochromatic, or near-monochromatic works of art, in some sense, have always existed in the forms of drawing, grisaille painting and marble sculpture. However, the use of a monochromatic palette as a significant contributor of a work’s content is a more modern phenomena. The 10 artists in Manifest’s Monochrome exhibition offer uniquely different approaches to art-making, however, they each recognize the direct power of a reduced palette.
In some cases, as in Corey Baker's "Alicia", the single color operates as a harness, focusing the viewers attention toward the representational content, eliminating the distraction of, say, blue, or red. Other works, like Robert Lansden's "Nothing to See, Nothing to Hide" and Sang-Mi Yoo's "New Village Floor Plans", make only supportive use of monochromatic strategy, using color to unify multiple components of the piece. The color field is represented, though developed beyond the canvas, in works like Stefan Annerel's "Navajo" and Jill Downen's "Hybrida" works.
John Zurier’s, The Blue of Her Cloak, offers perhaps the most representative work in the exhibit. The short video piece shows only a green sheet of paper laying on the floor. The paper has a monochromatic crucifixion scene printed on it. As the video progresses, the piece of paper is slowly covered in cascading dry blue pigment until the entire screen is nearly covered, creating a digital color field. Referential to Christian iconography (Mary is traditionally cloaked in blue), the piece harkens back to painting’s religious history while at the same time documenting, and literally portraying, the flattening of illusionistic space introduced by such approaches as the monochromatic color field. While some might argue his miniature history of painting comes up short, stopping with 20th century abstraction, Zurier keeps the conversation current with his use of video, playing the “loop” of painting’s history on an HD screen, thus filtering the viewing experience through digital technology. We are given a simplified narrative of the pre-modernism transition to modernism, through a postmodern lens.
If all this sounds too complicated for such a simple piece of art (after all, it’s just blue dust thrown on a green picture), perhaps you will be tempted to prescribe, “Less is more.” If so, you will find yourself in the good company of the 10 artists on display for Manifest’s first group exhibition of it’s 6th season. However, in that company you may find that less is, in fact, more – and that with intentional simplification comes amplification of serious art.