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“How To Survive Your Own Death (for CC)” is a painting fit for a homecoming. The title of the piece, a new work by painter Jason Gubbiotti, is a callout to a series by D.C. photographer Colby Caldwell. Since at least 2001, for a series of the same name, Caldwell has been mining a corrupted Photoshop file, printing abstract landscapes from an accidental realm governed by errant 0s and 1s. A print from Caldwell’s “How To Survive Your Own Death” series is usually a staple at his shows. So was Gubbiotti, before he decamped in 2004 to France, where he now resides.
Caldwell’s glitch-art file belongs in a museum. It’s an artifact representing some of the best art—and some of the best of times—from D.C.’s 2000s gallery scene. It’s only appropriate that Gubbiotti has appropriated Caldwell’s title for his own: The latter’s photographic reflections of an endless digital plane depict the same geometric systems and alien structures that the former works tirelessly to achieve in his paintings.
“War Paint” is Gubbiotti’s first exhibition with Civilian Art Projects and his fourth solo show in the District. More than any other artist, Gubbiotti has set expectations for painting in D.C., a city whose reputation has long relied on the reflected glory of the 1950s–’60s era. A show that ranges from sweeping to subtle in scope, “War Paint” proves that no one needs to look that far back in search of greatness in D.C. art.
“How To Survive Your Own Death (for CC)” (2014) is more than a resonant title: It’s typical of Gubbiotti’s new production. The abstract painting features large intersecting fields of bold but tonally neutral colors, grays in a surprising range of hues. Color gradients that transition from gunmetal to nuclear-hazard green as they near the center of the composition anchor both the top and bottom portions of the painting. Crisscrossing these fields are energetic projections of brighter acrylic color.
The pattern that evolves in the center, arising from a field of neon vectors, appears to be resolved: symmetric, rational, calm. Yet the stability of the composition is undermined by, well, the painting itself. Its left side (but not its right) is all frayed and loose, the fibers of the canvas showing like an error in the Matrix. That’s a clever new tactic that Gubbiotti uses to great effect in another painting, “Spring Back” (2013). This composition might be one that is starting to degrade: The planars all line up in the right places, but they don’t mirror one another. Parts of the painting are so dense, the fields look like they could be snapped or chiseled off; other areas of the canvas may not be painted at all. The whole system threatens to come undone.
Things fall apart in the quietest ways in Gubbiotti’s works. In “STAY ALPHA” (2014), the artist has painted a series of rigid horizontal stripes, like a Gene Davis painting on its side. (Gubbiotti’s palette is more acidic than Davis’, bolder and more artificial.) On closer inspection, though, two or three of those stripes are incoherent—fuzzy static in the midst of stately Color Field painting. It’s as if Gubbiotti is pulling back the curtain on the whole enterprise of painting.
If he’s grown cynical about the medium, it’s a calculated effect. Forty or more layers of paint went into “End of August” (2013), he said at the show’s opening. That work is one layer of black paint over another in a composition; only the edges left by the taping process appear to distinguish its different shapes and forms. The painting’s depths are so rich, they practically invite viewers to eat them up with a spoon.
In some works, Gubbiotti sows doubt about the reliability of the depicted plane, leading viewers to ask if what we’re seeing is what we’re supposed to be getting. In others, he hammers the viewer from the opposite direction. “GARADER” (2012) is an ecstatic painting. It resembles Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942–43), but rendered at a much higher density, with those primary colors and that famous joy of motion squeezed into a polygon that couldn’t hope to contain it all. Where Mondrian’s painting swings, Gubbiotti’s painting hums.
“Bow to the other VF” (2012 and 2014) is among Gubbiotti’s best work yet. Like some of his older works, the composition resembles precision agriculture as seen in aerial photography (the glorious trapezoids and rhombuses of colorful farmland visible from a plane window). The planars and vectors in “Bow” are tight, even delicate; an urge to peel the work away must be overcome. Here Gubbiotti invests incredible energy in building up a structure, layer by layer, inviting viewers up close to marvel at fields that seem to depict something far off—and then he interrupts the entire system with just a single dab of gestural abstraction.
Gubbiotti doesn’t shy away from working in a single dominant mode. Neither do the other great D.C. artists of his milieu, a class that includes Colby Caldwell, Graham Caldwell, Maggie Michael, Ian Whitmore, Jefferson Pinder, James Huckenpahler, and several others, some of whom, like Gubbiotti, no longer reside here. In “Shadowplay (for Tom Green)” (2012), Gubbiotti adapts his singular style in an homage to the departed Corcoran painting professor. The gesture is a reminder that artists working here have a lot to live up to. Gubbiotti’s show, on the other hand, is an accomplishment that contributes to that legacy.
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