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When Julie Mehretu debuted her wall-spanning, densely plotted abstractions in the 2000s, she unlocked globalization as a concern for painters. Her focus was interconnectivity within the digital and political landscape (and still is). She represented these abstract ideas through flags, blips, stamps, and other bits rendered like so many 0s and 1s swirling in a non-Euclidean maelstrom. Jason Gubbiotti belongs to the same class of contemporary artists using painting to explore the world as information. But if Mehretu tends to a globalized world from a sense of awe and admiration, Gubbiotti paints it at red alert.
For Glass Giant, a show of about two dozen new works on view at Civilian Art Projects, Gubbiotti brings most of his signature strategies to bear. He builds his meticulous paintings using custom wood supports (no two are alike) and acrylic paint (layers and layers of it). Builds is the word for it: Gubbiotti uses tools such as masking tape and razor blades to make (or rather apply) his textured paintings, but rarely uses brushes. A few of his pieces hang high, low, or even off the wall, such as “Square Waves” (2017), a painting that meets the gallery wall on its side, like a shopkeeper’s shingle. Zippy lines run right off the front onto the sides of the canvas and threaten to continue on along the wall, as in “GOLD TOP” (2017).
Glass Giant is a painting show for an era of rising populism. In “GOLD TOP,” for example, Gubbiotti’s circumscribed gold acrylic lines resemble a pattern, like a dense meandros—the ancient Greek fret design that the fascist Golden Dawn party has adopted as its key. While Gubbiotti’s methods haven’t changed much since he first started showing in D.C. in the early ’00s, his patterns have condensed. The paintings that once looked like topographic landscapes as seen from a drone have been subsumed by more rigidly symmetrical mazes and maps. Tropical and burgee-shaped, “MEGA TOUCH” (2016–17) could be mistaken for a flag for an offshore tax haven.
It would be a mistake to read too much into Gubbiotti’s paintings. They are severe but hardly didactic. “Cold Bottom” (2016), a shield-shaped acrylic painting on textured foam over cement, is unmistakably martial, but it’s not out of step with the psychedelic optical illusion of “Pink and Gold Are My Favorite Colors” (2012; 2014–15). Rendered in alternating black and gray lines, “Moonhead” (2017) summons Frank Stella’s black stripes but repurposes them as encrypted network data—a sinister painting indeed. Yet it’s not so far removed from “Negative 40” (2016), a tight, squirrely pen and watercolor drawing that looks like a Gubbiotti painting seen from 30,000 feet up.
“Fight Analysis” (2015–16) and “ALPHA DETECTOR” (2016) serve as bridges between Gubbiotti’s old and new work. “WARM WAR” (2016) also features larger planes of space framed by asymmetrical borders. It’s as if these paintings have not yet harmonized into the denser structures that mark his newer, more paranoid paintings. Tracing the details in Gubbiotti’s work is a pleasure, but the way the newer works virtually hum is unsettling. They reflect an anxiety about the role of information that was only barely present in his earlier, more optimistic paintings.
The standout in Glass Giant is “Chinese Star” (2016), a painting unlike anything Gubbiotti’s shown before: Densely textured and layered, the painting is a storm of neutral whites and grays, like the weather bands of a frosty gas giant. The signal is gone. Only noise remains. The painting represents collapse. The systems that his abstractions represent have fallen. So, too, has the artist’s system for making his labored works. This one certainly looks like it was made with a brush: a striking suggestion of the artist’s hand in a show about the appearance of control.
At Civilian Art Projects to April 26. 4718 14th St. NW. Free. civilianartprojects.com.