There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

“Chromophilia”

At Fusebox to Feb. 24

In his recent book Chromophobia, British art historian David Batchelor addresses himself to what he sees as a deeply ingrained Western prejudice against color. He makes a convincing case for both the existence of the phenomenon and that of its opposite, chronicling attempts in painting, photography, architecture, literature, and film either to demonize and suppress color or to lionize and exalt it. The striking central paradox of the book is that the fear of color and the love of it are two sides of a single coin. Both chromophiles and chromophobes perceive color as something dangerously, destabilizingly other: “feminine, oriental, cosmetic, infantile, vulgar, narcotic and so on.” Chromophiles just happen to like it that way.

But what if the chromophile could draw from a different script? What if color were permitted to make its case in more Apollonian terms? According to gallerists and essayists Sarah Finlay and Patrick Murcia, the six artists of Fusebox’s “Chromophilia,” a show conceived as a rejoinder to Batchelor’s book, “embrace color and integrate it with rationality, control, directness, and wit. Far from the unrestrained or cosmetic, these artists present a cerebral, objective approach to color….”

Spread among D.C., L.A., and New York, the men of “Chromophilia,” Jason Gubbiotti, Sylvan Lionni, Gary Petersen, W.C. Richardson, Vincent Szarek, and Patrick Wilson, are all abstract painters of a cool, thoughtful bent. (Though Szarek technically makes sculptures, they hang and function as paintings do.) Their work suggests theories that, if not entirely opposed to Batchelor’s own, at least stray toward the fringes of his formulation of the love of color.

For the rational abstractionist, color is a levelheaded choice, not something hit upon with expressionist fervor or imposed from without through naturalistic representation. But “Chromophilia”‘s most rational abstractionist merely ratifies colorways selected by the anonymous designers of everyday things. “I’ve never been able to justify to myself the decisions that most painters take for granted—choosing the right green to go with a blue, for example,” writes Lionni. “Instead, I turn a ping-pong table into an abstract painting. I don’t have to choose a green, but I get to decide the green.”

The arrays of colored dots in his Rainbow Pack 1 and Rainbow Pack 2 appear to have been determined by the layout of a Twister board. But an actual game board comes cluttered with text; Lionni, who is interested in the seepage of modernist formats into mundane commercial aesthetics (and who has done a remarkably perfect small canvas of blank mailing labels), turned instead to packages of circular stickers such as might be used to denote different discount tiers on a clearance rack. To tape off his canvases, the largest of which is 6 feet tall, he commissioned a company to make giant sheets of outsized labels. After applying an entire sheet, he removed the stickers, leaving behind the spacing grid, which he then filled in with paint before likewise discarding it.

The paintings play games with applied, as opposed to intrinsic, color (the chromophobe’s complaint being that color, especially applied color, is superficial and therefore insignificant). The stickers Lionni represents are experienced as dots of intrinsic color that can be applied to other things. But their own color integrality is illusory: They have been inked, and Lionni’s paint, which stands out from his surfaces in paper-thin relief, stands in for that ink. Merely by amplifying a found formal scheme into a parody of hard-edge abstraction, he has methodically stripped color of its real-world function and returned it to meaningless primacy. In the Rainbow Packs, color triumphs, even though weakened, because every other aspect of painting has been weakened more.

At the close of Chromophobia, Batchelor writes approvingly of art that “walks on a kind of tightrope between [Greenbergian] exclusivity and [end-of-painting] extinction,” and if Lionni virtually eliminates any kind of safety zone from his high-wire act, Szarek never risks losing his balance. Besides, his post-minimal pedigree makes him more the kind of artist Batchelor has in mind, an artist who makes “something not quite painting, yet not entirely something else either.” Commercial color retains its seductiveness in two untitled fiberglass wall sculptures that make plain the debt this New Yorker owes to California’s kustom-kar kraftsmen, not to mention its fine-art finish fetishists. The smaller piece, its acrylic-and-urethane coating a frozen lemon-orange with grape dusted in from the edges, actually looks like a slice of a roadster’s hood. The undulating form of the larger piece reads less literally. Its high-gloss candy-apple black-cherry shell causes it to function as a mirror, somewhere between the dressing-room-three-way and fun-house varieties. As the Euclidean geometry of even minimalism’s more colorful strains is warped into something only partially recognizable, virtually the whole gallery space, occupants included, is trapped in the black light of its hard, dark bubble.

Szarek’s work nevertheless jibes with Batchelor’s description of commercial finishes as giving “depth to flatness at the same time as it emphasizes that flatness….a kind of depth which is entirely the opposite of the atmospheric depth of traditional easel painting.” Wilson’s Burn, by contrast, reincorporates atmospheric space, if not exactly depth, into commercial reflectivity. Across four semigloss canvases that range from orange-red on the left to a bluish red on the right, a tiny houselike form—seemingly out of place, but accompanied by thin layers of other puny, though strictly abstract and geometric forms—is consumed, as if by fire. Radiant color fields, scorched around the edges as if in homage to the sunburst finish on a vintage Les Paul, appear as though they have been rudely intruded upon. Asserting their dominion, they fill with their heat what is now the background of the sky, but had been—just before the appearance of these minuscule interlopers—the exalted, nameless sublime. In Wilson’s Vampire, another slender form is rejected by the field, its exclusion defining the role of its environment. A row of miniature, rectilinear marks, the hues of which seem to have emerged from a drugstore makeup display, receive reflections that angle away below them. At the left of the row, one black oblong stands alone, unreflected, invisible in the mirror that must, by implication, exist: a vampire exposed by the absence of the supposedly superficial qualities of color and reflection.

Though there’s no reason chromophilia should be solely the province of the brash, particularly when Dionysus has left the dais, the show starts to falter with its most restrained works. Last fall at Fusebox, Gubbiotti’s solo show marked a brave departure from an accomplished signature style that he could have milked for years to come. And though I’m not convinced that Gubbiotti is yet where he wants to be, his willingness to throw himself, and his audience, a few change-ups won me over. But Creature of Comfort fails to create a place for itself amid the present surroundings; it seems like a leftover from the last show. Its temperate blobs of lemon whip, putty pink, and slate come across like glitchcore burbles all but drowned out by the surrounding din (even if, by design, the din of “Chromophilia” isn’t exactly deafening).

Petersen’s Go for It is also problematic in this context: It actually appears to be about the subordination of color to form. Strong circles of peach and salmon are bound by bars of greenish yellow (significantly, for Batchelor, a murky zone on the color wheel). The whole arrangement is bordered by dark segmented arcs, black or near-black, some of which are cushioned by films of a pinkish purple that could have come from a box of licorice allsorts. Outside is a brushy field of pale lavender and white. It suggests a biochemical vignetting, as if the energies of a Thomas Nozkowski painting were being caged away by a membrane that protects the surrounding medium from all but the most sluggish osmosis. Petersen’s faint chromophilia smacks of a faint chromophobia, as if the coin on which they were once clearly embossed has been worn thin.

It bears mentioning that the weak link at Fusebox, whose overall presentation has been the strongest of any local gallery to open in recent years, continues to be the show-shaping introductory essay. Despite the fact that “Chromophilia” draws on a recent piece of scholarship that, though hardly unknown, has not attained wide recognition in the art world and so warrants explication, Finlay and Murcia’s reading of Batchelor is rather cursory. They write that “[e]vidence of chromophobia can be found as far back as the Renaissance,” whereas Batchelor himself traces it to Aristotle. They group “Judd and other Minimalists” into a capsule chronicle of chromophobia, whereas Batchelor takes pains to clear minimalism of most charges, reserving his censure for conceptual art; at both the beginning and the end of his book, he singles out Judd for the complexity of his approach to color. Although Finlay and Murcia conclude by saying that “this exhibition is intended as a catalyst for a more comprehensive discussion of the potential and relevance of color in contemporary art,” they should have more extensively addressed the subject themselves.

Which is not to say that they aren’t onto something with the theme of their show. Indeed, the strongest piece, Richardson’s Double Take, gets everything right, elucidating the gallerists’ thinking and making good on “Chromophilia”‘s substantial promise. It’s a walloping sockdolager of a painting, in which color, form, pattern, and line wrestle for dominion over a large, layered, vibrant space. There’s no clean resolution, and no one element gets the upper hand. Tension is maintained. It’s as cunning as it is powerful, though, and some viewers may require the assistance of Richardson’s smaller, plainer Shifted Thinking, hanging with Vampire in the gallery’s office area, to be able to unravel what Double Take holds. (I did.) At last, color, rationally deployed, takes its place as a true equal to pictorial elements commonly held in higher intellectual esteem. Here, Batchelor’s vaunted “otherness” of color breaks down as Richardson poses the show’s strongest counterexample to Chromophobia’s order of things. CP