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“Jason Gubbiotti: Field Trip”

At Fusebox to Dec. 23

Sometimes it pays to train in a city that is not the red-hot center. Out of the same backward-looking impulse that can make the Washington art scene seem something less than cutting-edge, rising star Jason Gubbiotti has reconfigured the art history of his adopted hometown into a series of totally distinctive, thickly referential, and truly gorgeous paintings. Whereas a young artist in New York with the same raw talent and ambition might have been encouraged to work with more up-to-the-minute media, such as computers or video, Gubbiotti, a 1998 graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, has instead taken elements from color-field painting—which retains a prominence in Washington that it does not hold in other cities—and melded them with a repetitive, constantly shifting catalog of motifs derived from contemporary electronica. “Field Trip,” Gubbiotti’s first solo show, signals the surprising emergence of a hugely gifted young color-field painter, nearly 50 years after the movement’s heyday.

Gubbiotti, a 26-year-old Pennsylvania transplant, spent two years working as a studio assistant to the late painter Jacob Kainen, for 20 years the curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s graphic-arts division and the man who is often credited with bringing modern art to Washington. Kainen helped launch the careers of Washington Color School painters Morris Louis and Gene Davis, and the impact of this legacy can be felt in both the materials and the techniques Gubbiotti chooses. And before working with Kainen, Gubbiotti was a studio assistant to Robin Rose, a local artist who creates shimmering fields of color overlaid with biomorphic shapes. Though Gubbiotti’s work is his own, he shares his mentors’ fascination with color, surface, and texture. Gubbiotti himself cites Helmut Dorner, James Hyde, and Robert Ryman as influences, and their impact on his paintings—especially Ryman’s use of exposed canvas and thick paint—is readily apparent.

Gubbiotti’s works are compositionally simple: organic blobs on bright, largely pastel backgrounds. These formal elements are varied in size, color, and texture—or, more commonly, the illusion of texture—to create an impression of movement and flow, expansion and shrinkage. The blobs tend to congregate along the left sides of the paintings, often edging up against the limit of the canvas or board and threatening to slide off into an implied space beyond the painting. They bump and melt into each other like the bubbles in a lava lamp, or bounce along like circles moving across a screen saver. Gubbiotti is also fascinated with mimicking the weave of cloth in small patches of his oil-on-panel paintings, which have surfaces that are actually as smooth and strokeless as a silk-screen.

Despite their formal similarities, each of Gubbiotti’s pieces is distinctive, with a witty title that adds a great deal to the affectionate, playful tone of his oeuvre. The names, sometimes allusive, fit the paintings perfectly and provide amusing narratives for the seemingly randomly dispersed blobs and dots and blotches. The pieces have personalities, like little creatures. Gubbiotti calls them his “monsters,” allowed out for a “field trip” to the gallery. The show’s title also clearly puns on the fact that the painter is on a color-field trip—on a tear, taking a jag through that style of painting.

Like those of many color-fielders, Gubbiotti’s paintings are much more complex than they first appear. Big Beat and Warm Front are two of the more complicated—and visually stunning—works on display, but for very different reasons. Big Beat reproduces a small square of Gubbiotti’s Sonic Imperfections, magnifying the image—including its irregularities and flaws—from a 6-by-6-inch square on an oil-on-board painting with a waxy, polished surface and no visible brush strokes to a 6-by-6-foot oil-on-linen painting with a rougher texture and sweeping, powerful brushwork. This gigantic yellow-and-deepest-midnight-blue piece looms over the rest of the exhibition, playing big, booming bass beat to the pitter-patter and chatter of dots in such paintings as Public Display of Affection. (Its title is also a pun: “That’s what a painting is up to, no?” asks Gubbiotti mischievously.)

Warm Front, hidden toward the back of the gallery over the owners’ desks, began life as a sea of greens. Completed by Gubbiotti only after a full year of work, it appears white from a distance but is actually made of cloudlike layers of thick, palest pink paint. The green underpainting of the piece’s suppressed past shows in a thin line where the pigment gives way to two squares of unpainted raw linen. These geometric shapes, rounded at the edges, are repeated in pale gray at two other points on the piece, like floating ghosts of the raw-linen squares. Avocado-green biomorphs come from the left edge to blossom and fade across the painting’s surface, with reds and browns mixed in to create a magnified linen texture found nowhere else in the work.

All of Gubbiotti’s paintings are tightly controlled creations, modest masterpieces of intentionality. There is no illusion that you are seeing something instinctive or purely expressive when you look at them. Ask Gubbiotti and he can provide you with specific and complicated reasons for many of the features in any given work, along with the precise degree of the angles of their stretchers, which he makes himself of varying types and thicknesses of wood. (Gubbiotti pays close attention to the sculptural aspect of the support and how it relates the painting to the wall—some paintings are thrust forward from the wall, whereas others seem to slide or creep along it, their stretchers beveled at angles.) Each work has an aura of references hanging over it—academic allusions or self-revelatory ones. Even the materials of some of the paintings have elaborate histories.

Gubbiotti’s father manufactures awnings for shop fronts, so the artist grew up around architectural shapes and brightly colored canvases. The ovals of Scrimmage take their colors from the U.S. Army’s camouflage—dull brown, Desert Storm sand, winter blue—and are painted on hunter’s-orange awning material Gubbiotti snagged from his father. Orphan, oil-painted blobs on a wooden panel, is constructed from an old bookshelf Gubbiotti found in the hallway of his studio. Beta Pile uses Magna paint, an acrylic resin rarely used today but which was the medium of choice for Morris Louis and fellow Washington Workshop Center of the Arts instructor Kenneth Noland in the ’50s and ’60s.

There’s plenty of history buried in these works, and some paintings make that point quite forcefully. Beta Pile is, in fact, three canvases thick, one stapled over the next, like three paintings in one. You can see the other two only if you’re a conservator with an X-ray machine or if you have the gall to unstaple them, one by one, and check them out. But one canvas is enough for Gubbiotti to make plenty of associations, historical and otherwise: “Beta” because Louis labeled his paintings Beta Upsilon and the like; “Pile” for the piled-on colors and the stack of canvases; “Beta” also because Betamax videotapes are as obsolete—albeit perhaps as interesting—as the paintings hidden now from view; “Beta” as the test version of a new computer program.

Don’t Eat Me, a series of brightly colored oval outlines painted on pressed wafer board (the stretcher is made from a gallery shipping container, address label still intact on its uppermost plank), refers to the painting’s personality explicitly, says Gubbiotti, and to the relationships between work of art and artist, viewers, and critics. Sure, the viewer consumes the painting with his or her eyes, but paintings can also consume the painter—as can critics. With its rough support, Don’t Eat Me looks like an explicit instruction—as if devouring its delectable colors would only leave you with a mouthful of splinters.

Sometimes, however, the ovals in this painting can seem a little too similar to retro-chic-patterned glasses for sale at Crate & Barrel. Although anthropomorphically cute and visually engaging, Don’t Eat Me lacks the complex composition or painterly sophistication of most of the other pieces on display. It and some other works in this vein—very simple, hollowed-out, elongated ovals inscribed on colored canvases that the artist wisely chose not to show in this exhibition—are among Gubbiotti’s less successful works. So is New Monster, a witty riff on New Yorker Peter Halley’s ’80s neo-geo tape paintings. Here the lines are inexact, hand-drawn. Two small dark-gray blotches in fields of pale gray are intentional imperfections meant to subvert the idea of order and meaning central to Halley’s brightly colored project. New Monster is amusing to in-the-know viewers, certainly, but it ultimately comes off as too much of a student-level exercise. It’s possible, it seems, to be too referential.

More often than not, however, Gubbiotti transforms his art-world references into something new, beautiful, and uniquely his. CP