East City Art Reviews: Character Abstraction at Brentwood Arts Exchange

By Sarah McGavran, Ph.D. on July 22, 2019
Installation view of Character Abstraction at Brentwood Arts Exchange. Photo: Courtesy of Brentwood Arts Exchange

Character Abstraction, a small, focused exhibition at the Brentwood Arts Exchange, challenges the idea of abstraction as a catch-all for art that does not resemble the world around us. Instead, it draws upon the work of four artists from the DMV area to define a specific approach to abstraction. The titular “character” suggests both the distinct personality of each artist as well as the building blocks of language that can be strung together to create words and stories. Paired with the term “abstraction,” it delineates a highly personal form of visual expression. Yet in contrast to the Abstract Expressionism of mid-twentieth century artists like Jackson Pollock, which emphasized the artist’s individual expression above all, the works on view shift the focus to the viewer, who is encouraged to complete these compelling visual narratives.

Left to right: Olivia Tripp Morrow, Nine Patch Medallion No. 8; Orbiting Chain No. 4; and Twelve Patch Medallion No. 9; all 2019, digital prints on paper, 39 x 39 in. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

Each artist begins with a particular process but then improvises so that it leads to distinct outcomes. This results in a delightful variety within the work of the individual artists and across the exhibition as a whole. Take for example the triptych of Olivia Tripp Morrow’s digital prints at the entrance to the exhibition. Like a cross between a quilt and a shimmering kaleidoscope, each one is constructed from a series of squares of different sizes and patterns. Laid out in symmetrical, geometric sequences, these quadratic fields resemble butterfly wings, fruit, and flowers, which might be understood as traditional symbols of femininity.

Detail: Olivia Tripp Morrow, Nine Patch Medallion No. 8, 2019. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

However, a closer look reveals that each square is actually a photograph of the artist’s body in bed, dappled with light that shines through colorful crocheted blankets. Intimate selfies may be commonplace on social media, but there is nothing “insta” about these images. By cropping and doubling  close-ups, Tripp Morrow makes it difficult to determine exactly what is being shown in each square and therefore frustrates any desire to find a solution to her abstract puzzles. In doing so, she leaves it to the viewer to determine whether these works commodify or celebrate women’s bodies.

Olivia Tripp Morrow, Lips, 2019, custom printed blanket, sewing pins, curtain rod, pantyhose, 99 x 96 in. Photo: Dawn Whitmore

Two of Tripp Morrow’s quilts likewise challenge simplistic associations between the female body and the bedroom, but with a dose of dark humor. Suspended from a curtain rod, the quilt entitled Lips has a colorful printed backing that faces the wall, while the batting that would normally fill the inside of the quilt is on full frontal display.

Detail: Olivia Tripp Morrow, Lips, 2019. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

Cuts through the layers of material create the pattern. In a cheeky play on the title’s anatomical reference, Tripp Morrow uses straight pins to hold open these slits and reveal some of the vibrant backing. The holes in the blanket create an interplay of light and shadow that is similar to the effect captured in her digital prints. As if to suggest the burden of reducing women to bedroom objects, the bottom corners are weighed down by two sacks made of pantyhose.

Ian Jehle, A Lie That Tells the Truth, 2019, mixed media. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

Like Tripp Morrow’s digital collages, Ian Jehle’s contribution is grounded in a logical formula. In A Lie That Tells the Truth, a site-specific, mixed-media wall painting, the artist—a former engineer—lays bare his process, inviting viewers to follow along. To the left of this bold, gestural piece are the sketches and formulas Jehle jotted down to help determine the diameter and bisection of the circles that form the painting’s basic compositional unit. The almost messy, free-flowing sequence of numerical permutations reveals that the artistic process is not always so different from that of the mathematician or the scientist.

Once Jehle measured out the geometric sequence of circles and lines on the wall, he introduced a simplified palette of the primary colors, as well as orange, black, and brown. The circle at the center of the composition serves as the starting point for what becomes a radiating sequence of lines that unfolds like a graffiti artist’s tag on an urban edifice. Despite the composition’s underlying logic and control, it gives way to the spontaneous, and even incorporates accidental drips and splatters. In Jehle’s work, the process is the narrative, and it takes an unexpected turn.

Installation view: Judy Southerland’s series Drawing to Mind, 2015–19.
Photo: Courtesy of Brentwood Arts Exchange

In a series of ten works entitled Drawing to Mind, Judy Southerland uses small squares rendered in watercolor pencil as the basic compositional unit. If the viewer is left to ponder how Jehle’s formula might play out in other iterations, here we see a range of possible permutations at once.

Judy Southerland, Drawing to Mind #20 and #22; both 2015, watercolor pencil on paper, 16 x 12 in. Photo: Greg Staley

Each constellation of squares suggests a different subject and point of view. Some resemble animals in profile, while others look like maps or cities seen from above.

Judy Southerland, Drawing to Mind # 11, 2015, 16 x 12 in. Photo: Greg Staley

By contrast, Drawing to Mind #11 consists of larger shapes, and expands the repertoire to trapezoids and rectangles, which results in a greater sense of three-dimensionality. These slight variations open up endless new imaginative possibilities. Southerland further explores the evocative power of color, shape, and medium in a layered acrylic on canvas entitled Field of Operation: Stroke Green (2019) and a modular group of chromatic paintings entitled Conveyors and Outliers (2019).

Isabel Manalo, Hiraeth, 2018, acrylic, enamel, latex, and oil on canvas, 50 x 72 in. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

Of the works on view, Isabel Manalo’s four gestural abstract canvases seem the most closely aligned with Abstract Expressionism. At first, the thick, marbled paint poured directly onto the surface overshadows more deliberate aspects of her process. But once the paint has begun to set, she tilts the canvases, so that the tacky outer skin wrinkles and the still-wet paint underneath runs towards or even off of the edge, as in Hiraeth. Not only does Manalo disrupt the processes she has set into motion but she also contains the free-flowing paint with bold outlines. Rife with metaphorical potential, the visual effects of these paintings range from what the exhibition’s curator Spencer Dormitzer calls “monsters in the attic” to castles in the sky.

That each artist realizes such varied work within their chosen approach speaks to the broader possibilities within the field abstraction itself. Decades after Minimalism and Conceptual art superseded Abstract Expressionism, artists continue to develop fresh takes on abstraction. Tripp Morrow, Jehle, Southerland, and Manalo spin open-ended visual narratives that unfurl slowly, as viewers retrace their processes and envision their own endings. Since the work requires some patience to come alive, consider visiting Character Abstraction with a friend, talk about what you see, and let the conversation lead you to uncharted imaginative territory.

Character Abstraction is on view from at Brentwood Arts Exchange through August 17, 2019. BAE is located at 3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, Maryland, 20722. Hours are Monday­–Friday, 10:00 a.m.­ to 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free.

For more information, visit the gallery’s website at: http://www.pgparks.com/1782/Brentwood-Arts-Exchange