Mason Saltarelli’s excellent show in the long space of Turn Gallery looks like a genuine bid to push abstraction forward, freeing it as much as possible from the heavy weight of abstract expressionism. Seemingly naive, the paintings present a straightforward constellation of stripes and dots and organic passages of color. Abstract painting has been around for a while—its zenith in New York occurred of course in the early and middle parts of the last century—but the impulse to make nonobjective works of art remains strong, especially in New York, where there is a long history of painting in this style. Clearly, the heroic days of abstraction are over, but that does not mean individual artists cannot revive a tradition that has never truly died (witness the current work of Louise Fishman or the younger example of Amy Sillman). Saltarrelli thus belongs to a way of working that is improvised and free of stylistic constraint. His show of paintings do not necessarily call to mind any weighted influence of an earlier painter, although the viewer may feel that Arthur Dove, the outstanding early American abstractionist, is hovering in the background. It is clear Saltarrelli is driven by his own view of things, which is not so much a paraphrase as it is an assertion of innovation.
As good as these works are, they beg the question whether current abstraction can continue unimpeded by the long tradition it is supported by. We cannot go on repeating the same string of notes. It is up to Saltarrelli’s generation to work out a style that stands on its own terms in the first part of our century. As a movement, it is inevitable that abstraction has lost its novelty, so it seems difficult, if not impossible, to describe a future in which we will have a major rebirth of the style. But, as I have said, individuals can resurrect, through paintings that are beholden to but different from the past, a feeling that holds true to what preceded them. Saltarelli’s seemingly offhand compositions describe a world where anything can happen. In Singing Birds of Different Species (2016), a complex composition dominated by curvilinear stripes in red, black, and green, the viewer has the sense of tenuous attachment between forms, which look like they are floating in open space. Flanked on the left and right by thick bands of black, the work presents a busy center, with green, black, and red forms vertical in their orientation. The stripes thicken and thin, giving us the impression of movement.
Fires near Frozen Landscapes (2017) is another accomplished abstraction. With a gray and black center, and a yellow halo decorated with quickly inscribed V-shapes, the image could be seen as ahead, but that would likely be too much of a figurative reading. Inserted between the yellow ring and the gray and black middle are two inchoate vertical shapes, one blue and one green, which displays black circles, one in the blue and two in the green. As a painting Fires stands self-sufficiently on its own terms, which is what good abstract paintings are supposed to do. The shapes can be detailed, and the colors described, but the painting must cohere to work. Here the artist does so successfully. The 2017 work, Construction of a New Port—Saltarrelli’s titles are highly evocative but usually give us no clue to the painting’s composition—is dominated by a black, curved, incomplete ring that ends on sides with black circles. On top of it, more or less in the center, a turquoise strip curves to meet a yellow one. Three horizontal orange bands occur on the top, with a yellow band found on the lower end of the painting. Dots, mostly black, punctuate the painting’s field, while a horizontal row of pink dots occurs on the painting’s bottom. Not quite schematic in its organization, the painting balances between organic and linear abstraction.
The artist placed one sculpture in the show: a 14-inch bronze that lies flat on its display. Gold in color, the sculpture’s forms are vaguely outlined but recognizable. The work is inspired by a Hopi kachina doll. It does not appear to relate to the paintings in any particular way, so we must ask ourselves what role it plays in the exhibition. As a visible recollection of an artifact from another culture, the sculpture interprets in a broad manner the ancestral spirit sacred to the Hopi people. We hardly talk about spiritual life in art now. Yet the artist chose to include the work in the show. It can be said that abstraction is particularly close to matters of the inner self, as it is not concerned with visual reality. So it may be that the bronze reifies spiritual life in an exhibition that already is concerned with inner vision. Saltarrelli is an artist interested in the intuitive process of abstraction, reinforced by meditative decision-making. His paintings offer no specific reference to internal life, yet they are informed by a lyric cast of mind. His forms feel as though they are at play, intimating the enjoyment of their facture. Thus their conception and construction suggest a place where the poetic implications of art can survive—surely an achievement in materialist times.
Mason Saltarrelli: Acoustic Tulips at Turn Gallery
February 24 – April 15th, 2017
Writing by Jonathan Goodman