Geometry and Abstract Expressionism combined by James Massena March at Tregoning & Co
“Abstract” is not a genre, nor is it a style. If anything ties together the various modes of painting called “abstract,” it is the fact that they do not aim to depict things as they look to the naked eye. Abstraction thus encompasses diverse, sometimes oppositional tendencies. It can be as strict as geometry, or as intuitive and formless as mysticism.
James Massena March has challenged himself to bring together traditions of abstraction and combine the geometric and intuitive. The fruits of his labor are now on display in Cosmic Shift, a solo exhibition now on display at Tregoning & Company.
In his recent acrylic works, March aims to synthesize geometric abstraction, op art and abstract expressionism. It is March’s relationship to op art that is the most unconventional. Traditional op artists are self-taught vision scientists who use their optical knowledge to produce various illusory effects. They trick the eye into seeing colors that aren’t present in the paint, or into sensing motion in a static picture. Only one piece in Cosmic Shift has such a special effect (an untitled piece from 2016 features a curly “tube” striped with green and pink, before a backdrop of yellow and blue stripes. From a distance, the green-pink tube appears gray). Rather than their special effects, March is drawn to op artists for their use of repetitive geometric patterns.
Specifically, he returns again and again to lines or bars, aligned vertically or diagonally. The lines are usually arranged into columns or rows that span the breadth of the canvas. The bars seem to be among the last elements to be added to the painting. In a summary of his techniques, March writes, “I generally start my paintings with large palette knives and brushes to build an expressionist foundation and then build on whatever chance relationships occur with precise geometric and optical techniques.”
This is a bold method for March, for the expressivist idiom is new to him. He says this explicitly the artist statement for Cosmic Shift, and it is not until 2014 or so that the archived works on March’s website take on the style displayed in this show. His bread and butter for years has been geometric abstraction. But in his current work, it is only after the expressionist base is built up that March add layers of mathematical figures, imposing familiar order on chaos. Viewers are the beneficiaries of March’s efforts to push himself out of his comfort zone. The unity of opposites, the marrying of extremes, requires engagement to take in, but is well worth the effort.
The painting “As the World Turns” can be viewed as a sort of manifesto for March’s adventure into abstract expressionism. A long sequence of his op art-inspired work depicted zebra-striped fluctuating fields and spirals. These works were so exact in how forms and figures were distinguished from each other, they almost looked drawn—or perhaps even computer generated—rather than painted. Black and white recur together in “As the World Turns,” but here have been painted with broad brushes in overlapping strokes. Partial circles and quadrilateral also populate the canvas. The shapes’ partiality suggests a world in flux and motion. Nothing is complete, nothing firm enough to touch.
“Towards Yellow” is perhaps March’s boldest use of color. Primary colors announce themselves loudly throughout the show. They are put to fairly conventional use in the smaller work “Lighter than Air,” on which presents a red space occupied by blue, white, and green blobs with some lilac accents. Color Theory 101 in action. But in “Towards Yellow,” the titular hue is put to work alongside pink, green, teal, deep purple, and lapis lazuli. Throughout the show, pinks and oranges are used sparingly to spice up earth tones, primaries, and more muted compounds. This introduces fluorescent brightness which was unseen in the first generations of abstract expressionism.
March is very interested in space, but not necessarily the three-dimensional space of everyday tangible objects. Granted, in one painting, triangles interlock like links in a chain, something that could only occur in a 3D space like ours. “Stratascape” also features a lightning bolt-shaped bar shrinking into the distance. These anomalies aside, March’s spaces are two-dimensional. Figures and color fields layer on top of each other, but the layering does not invoke an illusion of depth. This is even true when entire 2D spaces are superposed on top of one another. At first glance, “Square within Square” appears dominated by diagonal black and white stripes. However, there are in fact only white stripes. Peering through the stripes, we see a black space, filled only by a looping red line.
“Above and Below (Homage to Rothko)” is the show’s most obvious tribute to another artist. (One untitled work from 2016 presents us with peachy flesh-colored blobs that might reference the human figures of Willem de Kooning or Francis Bacon. But these resemblances could be accidental.) Even while making an unmistakable homage, March is able to assert his own style, using his trademark rows of bars to render the green and yellow rectangles that correspond to Rothko’s minimalist figures.
The title of “The End Times,” along with the composition itself, invokes Michelangelo’s monumental “The Last Judgement.” It has the most diverse palette of any of the works on display, and some of the sharpest contrasts between shades. The upper right corner is smeared with black, ringed by blue, red, and yellow. Beneath that, white, sky blue, and pink dominate. The whole arrangement is centered by a gray triangle, a neutral party caught between light and dark. In many ways, it epitomizes March’s project, creating wholes out of opposing things.
Cosmic Shift is on display through August 26 at Tregoning & Company, located at 1300 W. 78th St. For more information, call 216-281-8626 or go to tregoningandco.com.