Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Fugitive Geometry Opens

Meditations on a Three-Legged Easy Chair by Jason Smith

Owen Harvey's work reminds us that the tradition of abstract painting remains a vital, unpredictable and pleasurable pursuit. Unlike so many contemporary abstract painters who seem preoccupied with materials, application and installation as ends in themselves, Owen invigorates his relatively spare work through internal pictorial dynamics (or more recently serial, repetitive relationships) and the tensions that develop from his thoughtful, playful approach to the contradictions inherent his work.
Owen's smart and challenging compositions are tempered by a sense of simple, rhythmic beauty and grounded in relatively consistent and limited formal vocabulary. Startling shapes and colors are arrayed in ways that suggest both a disjointed passage and fully unified composition. What remains unaccountable about Owen’s work is that he uses this stripped-down (but wonderfully generous) vocabulary to speak in unexpected and subtle ways about the human condition. In front of Owen's work, one feels the tug of old concerns, hints of romantic gestures and fugitive desires for transcendence. Yet the impossible emergences or dreamy deliverances remain baffled, oddly entombed by their own candy-colored surfaces.
This rebuttal of transcendence is sharply defined by the spatial ambiguity of his otherwise stark horizon lines. His diagonal nods to receding space are stopped short by his impasto-spackled (or gooey-glazed) surfaces that seem another (almost redundant) ironic denial of expressive potential with their banal, almost mechanical application. Even the lines and planes within his pictures often approach each other yet never quite touch. A disjointed platonic reality is suggested in which ideal forms remain disconnected from each other - and the viewer. The forms are bound in Zeno's infinite immobility, just as we are unable to truly close the distance and fully "know" one of Owen’s paintings - as his titles often remind us, with their humorous references, following coded paths counter-intuitively related to the images we initially confront.
These stark formal images mock our desire for anything other than their singular presence. They may not be what we thought we needed, something impossible other, but they radiate. It is as if they must continually exorcize concept and illusion in order to replace transcendence with an earthly transubstantiation. Approached directly, the scalloped surfaces cease to be anti-expressive gestures and become something else - a non-representational moment, providing us not with illusion and
reference, but a reinvigorated awareness of concrete materiality. They offer a simple sense connectedness with nature, a declaration that each image is nothing but that which is.
This tension between materiality and conceptual space is configured differently in Owen’s recent work on wood. The lack of any visual relationship between surface and image allows them to float more comfortably together - in utterly different dimensions. In Owen's works on canvas, the laborious process that fused figure and ground gave his work a sense of weighty necessity and almost classical proportion. The works on wood allow the emergence of less studied rhythms and gestures. The lines and marks seem but one configuration of many possible compositions - suggesting a further departure from any grappling with absolutes - toward an open-ended evolving display. A new complexity seems to be emerging from this serial work with its post-minimal sensibility. One senses certain struggles laid aside as new forms and colors easily blossom; yet these images carry their own strange, uncanny echoes, harbingers of other struggles. Owen’s paintings seem to remain a three-legged easy chair.