A Vigilant Turn from Complacency

by Vittorio Colaizzi

Originally published by Brick Weekly, Richmond VA, Wednesday, January 10, 2007.
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Installation view of “Contemplations,” Red Door Gallery, Richmond VA, December 2006. Pictured L-R: Mockingbird, Looker, Untitled, Monk, and Dove.

Decoration haunts abstraction, pacifying its disruptive potential so that it may be assimilated into “the arts.” The best paintings are embodied visual thinking, and we think them every bit as much as we see them. Decoration, on the other hand, is not thought but recitation, the expert assemblage of various tropes for a handsome effect. This dialectic has nothing to do with style or technique, and cannot be simplified as “rough” vs. “slick.” Nor is this distinction intended to denigrate all pattern-based abstraction, which can sometimes be a corrective to stagnant conventions. Decoration occurs when a viewer is told what he or she wants to hear, and abstraction occurs when comfort is refused. The distinction is rarely clear, and viewers will always disagree on what constitutes mere repetition and what constitutes adventurous dwelling in the unfamiliar. Douglas Witmer incorporates the very opposition of decoration vs. thought, or recitation vs. discovery, into his paintings, and makes it a part of our experience.

Reductive modernist abstraction has been interpreted as spiritual because, due to its removal of distracting particularities, it throws the viewer back upon self-consciousness. But unlike Mondrian or Rothko, few artists today feel such singularity of purpose or historical necessity. The postmodern splintering of possibilities has made quasi-spiritual abstraction somewhat quaint, but it is still carried on, minus the utopian pretensions, justified by the very same privileging of individual experience.

This is Witmer’s ambition, both for himself and his viewer. He draws on his Mennonite background and its pervasive aesthetic of “plain-ness.” Often expressed in architecture in his native Pennsylvania, Witmer has transposed onto his paintings the ideal of the “well-made,” which eschews elaborate metaphor and calls attention only to its own terse self.

The paintings themselves consist of mostly symmetrical compositions, limited if somewhat vibrant colors, generally clean edges, and an overall reticence and lack of spectacle. They do not pander to a craving for stimulation, but offer subtle distinctions. This is a high-stakes game, because it is here, between plain-ness and performance, that Witmer’s paintings can fall into decoration. The fascinating thing is that they do not sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Rather, they all fail, and they all succeed. Each contains within it a sophisticated acting-out of this dialectic.

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Mockingbird, 2005. Acrylic and pumice on canvas, 53 x 44 inches.

In Mockingbird (2005), ten trapezoids, arranged in two rows so that their narrow ends point outwards, are placed over a thin wash of gray acrylic. The trapezoids are glossy white with an abrasive pumice texture, but small haloes of prismatic color seep outward from each one, most likely the result of deliberately slack masking tape. There is something of the obligatory faux-finish to the gray ground, as if the clean glossy edges simply needed a stylistic complement. And yet the wash’s thin impoverishment is a convincing manifestation of Witmer’s “anti-design,” anti-performance approach.

Witmer paints the inheritance of modernist abstraction, and perhaps, metaphorically, the more ecumenical spirituality of today, in the openness of his compositions, their perpetual almost-ness, and their refusal of closure or perfection. This quality is particularly apparent in his ink and watercolor sketches, in which dark blocks suggest windows and doors, only partially corralling more freely brushed fields. The mitered edges of one and the right-handed imbalance of another bespeak a why-not experimentation that is antithetical to the search for the right and final image.

At the same time, this leaving-open, this avoidance of airtight geometries, can result in visual punchlines that threaten to finish the painting prematurely, to make us think we have seen it, because we get the secret. Oddly, one of the most subdued paintings, Dove (2002), gives a little too much, cleverly modifying its otherwise gutsy white and pale blue horizontally bisected configuration by means of slightly divergent diagonals and the continuation of the design onto the sides of the stretcher. More effective are the different whites in Looker (2003); one pure, one somewhat gray. Although the viewer might congratulate him/herself for finding this detail, it provides no end, no answer, no punchline, and its visibility is jeopardized by a garish blue pumice “frame.” This painting offers no pleasant unity, and is therefore one of the most visually and intellectually stimulating.
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Garden Spot, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.

Another such clear but mysterious detail occurs in Garden Spot (2006), in which a vertical rectangle of brushed green appears in the center of a white canvas. The elementary composition and evocative title communicate a wistful if somewhat aristocratic feeling for tamed and manicured nature. After a while, one realizes that the green does not cut through the plane, as if continuing beyond it, but is enclosed by thin white strips above and below. This detail makes one wonder at Witmer’s choice: what are the implications of maintaining a singular, self-contained image as opposed to a slice of an implied landscape? This wondering is never satiated, and becomes key to the experience of the painting.

It has been said that abstraction is no longer possible, that it can only represent previous approaches. If, after the collapse of modernism’s utopias, any historical function remains for art, it is to defeat this sad abdication, this obsequious accommodation to the academic marketplace, which nullifies art in order to traffic in the arts. Abstraction is desperately needed today, but it cannot be achieved through formal distillation or novel outlandishness, but by an always vigilant turning away from complacency. (There is no reason why representational painting cannot achieve this kind of “abstraction.”) At its best, Witmer’s work attains this status, paradoxically by dangerously courting its opposite.

Vittorio Colaizzi is an artist, critic, and teaches art history at Winona State University in Minnesota. He has published criticism and essays in Art Papers, Smithsonian’s American Art, and Woman’s Art Journal. He is currently preparing a monograph for Phaidon on Robert Ryman.