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“Synthesis: Recent Work

by Matthew Landkammer

and Phillip Lynam”

At Wohlfarth Galleries to Sept. 28

Let us count the ways in which the works of Matthew Landkammer and Phillip Lynam are not color-field paintings: (1) They’re small. (2) They’re (mostly) square. (3) They’re thickly and heavily worked. (4) They’re (mostly) not on canvas. And yet they are abstract, composed principally of striped or flowing colors, and celebrate their constituent parts as eloquently as any example of (as they used to call it) post-painterly abstraction.

Landkammer is a Nebraskan who’s just moved back home after years in Seattle; Lynam is an Indianian who works at the Phillips Collection and just got an MFA in painting from the University of Maryland. This is the first time their work has been shown together, but the affinities between the two are obvious. Both artists find new wrinkles—or, more exactly, grooves—in the meeting of color and surface.

All but one of the Landkammer pieces in this show follow the same method. They’re acrylics on wooden panels, and each offers a horizontal-striped variation on a single, generally pastel hue. The painter lays down 10 layers of diluted pigment, sands the surface, then adds another 10, until there are some 100 layers. Deep as they are, the resulting hues seem translucent, applied so thinly that the grain of the wood is apparent. (The wood is generally poplar, although there’s one square each of maple and red oak; the latter is actually an example of an earlier style, with denser and more varied color.) Although Landkammer has denied that his paintings are in some way landscapes, he admits that they were inspired by the open spaces of the American West and have what he calls “a vague sense of horizon.”

If the painter’s oranges verge on bright, most of the hues seem antique and tastefully weathered, as if Landkammer had gently rubbed horizontal bands into panels from the façades of Nantucket beach houses. Yet these pieces are more playful than they initially appear. The artist has painted the back of each square in a contrasting color and set the pieces at an angle to the wall so that the reflected hues endow the works with candy-colored auras. Thus the light blue of 01082601, the show’s least assertive color, is contrasted by a hot-pink backdrop, and 09082601’s orange pops from a halo of vivid if disembodied green.

The effect is to give Landkammer’s austere, minimalist exercises a bit of Pop Art swagger. Despite their complex means, these pieces make their point quickly, and you might initially think that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. (The serial-number titles emphasize the assembly-line feel.) The reflected backdrops, however, change the dynamic, providing a range of possible vantage points and mutable hues. There’s a tension to these paintings that’s only tangential to the face they present to the viewer.

The Lynam pieces on display are more diverse, yet linked to Landkammer’s in several ways. Lynam sometimes uses textured paper that gives a similar visual effect to Landkammer’s wood grain while also providing a sense of motion. Both artists generally prefer small formats and create work that is flat yet has depth, like an area of still water. Both also make art that is carefully controlled, although Lynam is more improvisational. He works with squeegees, layering progressively darker layers of pigment atop lighter ones. Masking-tape lines keep order at the edges, but the possibility of chromatic freedom exists inside that hard border. The edges of the pieces are not covered, so that the depth of the multiple strata of paints is also apparent.

Lynam is a miniaturist in more than one sense. Most of these paintings are small, but they also feel like close-ups or even microscopic views of natural but unidentifiable forms. The psychedelic yellow-and-green blobs of encode suggest a moment from a Fillmore West color-gel light show, although Lynam thinks in terms of more recent spectacles. (He’s written that he wants his paintings “to mimic the glowing light of the monitor and the light saturated hues of digital color.”) But the orange-and-blue untitled 3 and the shades-of-red untitled 8 look like bits of battered wall or rusty metal. Their hot, smeary, sometimes cracked colors and degraded forms recall Polaroid snapshots or color Xeroxes; if these pieces were jeans or furniture, they’d be called “distressed.”

The tension in these paintings is right up front, and it recalls the early days of abstract expressionism. The soft, rising forms of access suggest layers of clouds, but the piece’s overwhelmingly red palette is anything but wispy and picturesque. Lynam seeks the beauty in damaged, seemingly haphazard shapes and colors and the equilibrium between movement—you might even say “struggle”—and serenity.

In his canvases, Lynam works both with and against the grain. The largest one, inter, is a predominantly yellow-and-brown painting in which reds and greens are submerged, faintly glimmering through. The piece resembles both batik fabric and an abstracted stand of bamboo, with fibrous textures that complement Landkammer’s use of actual wood. (A smaller piece on paper, untitled 22, has a similar but less elaborate look.) Even at larger sizes, however, Lynam’s art is tightly focused. If inter were read as a landscape, it would have to be a jungle close-up in which you couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Anyone familiar with American abstract painting of the late ’50s and early ’60s will recognize the essential ingredients of Landkammer’s and Lynam’s work. Yet these artists are not latter-day converts to the high church of abstract expressionism. They’re distinguished by their careful, almost intentionally inhibiting, sense of craft—these works take time and care—and subtly playful touches. It’s as if these painters neither seek nor even entirely trust transcendence: Both their artworks and the outlook behind them are pointedly modest. CP