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“New Works by Alex Mayer”

At District Fine Arts to May 13

What color is minimalism? Black and white, mostly, which presume gray as well. Industrial and earth tones are OK, too: stone, brick, metal, dirt. What colors are not minimalism? Well, orange comes to mind.

The largest of the six sculptural pieces in Alex Mayer’s show at District Fine Arts is orange, and although most of the rest are in gradations of black and white—there’s a yellow one, too, but it’s not a bright yellow—the orange one is telling. Indeed, the simple fact that the piece must be called “the orange one” is significant: All 10 works in the show are untitled. Not for Mayer the detached, crypto-geometric titles of minimalist high priests like Sol Lewitt (46 three-part variations on three different kinds of cubes) or, for that matter, such musical fellow travelers as Philip Glass (Music in the Form of a Square).

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The orange one is actually composed of four different kinds of stacked rectangular boxes, but the boxes execute a puckish twist on minimalism’s fascination with repetition by changing proportion as they get smaller. Although the largest has roughly the dimensions of a shoebox (a comfortingly familiar form), the top one is deep and narrow—an outlandish shape, if any rectangular box can be deemed outlandish. (It might be a hatbox for one of those Dr. Seuss characters who favored precarious headgear.) Simple as the piece is, it shows that Mayer is playful in a way that the stern late-’60s/early-’70s minimalists (at least the East Coast ones) never were.

Mayer actually hails from Southern California, where kandy-kolored tangerine-flake art is common, and has lived for years in Washington, whose art scene is still best known for a group called the Color School. Indeed, Mayer works as an assistant to second-wave Color Schoolist Sam Gilliam, who relies on Mayer’s skills in constructing curved plywood forms. It’s not a stretch to see Color School antecedents for Mayer’s work: He applies hues lightly to broad expanses of plywood, letting the grain show through as if it were that abstract-expressionist holy of holies, the unprimed canvas.

The orange one is the brightest of the six sculptures, although not necessarily the lightest. All six seem light, both in material—the one that’s not plywood is a vaudeville-prop mallet made partially of cardboard—and concept. A gray disc pops its top so that its interior can be inspected. A large, segmented black ring hangs on the wall, but not heavily; it’s lightweight and modular. Equally accommodating is the shallow, mostly white box with five round holes cut into its principal surface; the sculpture can be rotated on the wall, and the pieces that cover the holes can be pivoted into various positions. Mayer has also used his plywood-curving skills on interior-design projects, and some of the flexibility and pragmatism necessary for such work seem to have carried over into his art. It doesn’t impose itself too demandingly.

The four other works in the show are from another tradition, or, at least, they allude to one. These smaller pieces—one photograph and three sculptural drawings, all in black and assorted neutral tones that pass for white—are formal and restrained in the Asian manner. The photograph is an abstract, almost black-and-white image that could be of anything long, thin, and regularly arrayed—metal slats, patterned fabric—but it suggests the arrangement of dense bamboo stalks in a Japanese forest. The others have a loose but assured ink-on-paper quality that recalls Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and scroll paintings.

In fact, the drawings are etched as much as inked. They’re rendered on homosote, a highly compacted feltlike fiberboard, with both knife and brush, and have been finished with sandpaper. Despite these labored surfaces, however, the strokes look free, as if laid down with great foresight but no struggle. Only the largest of the three, which is also the least appealing, shows some of the turmoil characteristic of those abstract expressionists—Kline, Motherwell—who used to work mostly in black and white.

The lack of struggle seems to be the key. Obviously, these 10 pieces involve skill and effort—there’s considerable craft on display. What Mayer’s work lacks is the severity of the productions of those artists who first stripped sculpture and painting to their essential (or so it once seemed) forms. Stepping back from the conceptual abyss, Mayer finds that dexterity, intelligence, and wit are sufficient to make interesting art. Its lightness may not be incredible, but this work has an amiability that approaches the serene. CP