at Klein Art Works

If you open up a U.S. road atlas and trace the lines delineating the counties of any state, you’ll have an excellent idea of the shapes Jesse Hickman employs in his series of paintings on wood panels, straightforwardly titled “The County Series.” In fact, this entire exhibition is so straightforward–stemming from a superficial treatment of the geographical subject–that it’s ultimately not very exciting. Instructional but disappointing, this series demonstrates how an initially interesting idea and energetic working process can result in pieces whose static compositions and technical restraint border on blandness.

Oddly enough, the first thing you notice on entering Klein Art Works is the floor. Sheets of hot-rolled steel gleam with soft hues of deep gray and blue, reminiscent in effect of the color-field painter Mark Rothko. On the back and right walls of the huge, airy room are double glass doors opening onto a yard earmarked for a sculpture garden. Eighteen paintings hang in a wide circle around the room, beginning on the left wall near the reception desk, fanning out to a freestanding wall near the back doors, and ending on the right wall across from the reception area. The series divides into two distinct groups: nine large pieces of irregular dimensions, and nine much smaller pieces that are reworkings of the larger paintings.

The big pieces are composed of rectangular walnut panels of irregular lengths, joined by dowels to form the shapes of the counties they’re named for. Each work is painted with pigmented gesso and selectively burned to achieve a simple pattern of stripes–the burned black areas alternate with the areas of colored gesso remaining. Because Hickman controlled the burning by laying lengths of wet rope across the gessoed surface, each stripe is separated from its neighbor by a narrow, softened parallel line with tiny blisters.

Realizing that a roomful of parallel-stripe compositions might have a monotonous effect, Hickman has pulled some panels apart and deliberately misaligned them when he rejoined them. Owen is the most direct example of this intentional mismatching. A large horizontal panel is topped by a smaller horizontal one, and the black and red-orange vertical stripes on each clearly do not line up at their shared border. In addition, the right side of the top panel extends several inches beyond the same side of the lower panel, while the left side of the top panel is about a foot short of the lower panel’s left side.

Unfortunately, these off-kilter techniques are not enough to produce the edgy, dynamic feeling Hickman seems to be hoping for. We understand the basic shape of Owen County, but the stripes themselves have such a neutral emotional impact, misalignment notwithstanding, that we learn nothing about the county’s interior, on a literal or metaphorical level. Instead we’re left with mere technique, and a technique that’s too restrained to carry the burden of our interest. The red-orange gesso is lovely but has been applied in a thin, smooth layer of unassertive brushwork. The burned areas reveal a subtle wood grain, but this texture is subdued by the clear wax coating the artist has used to finish off each piece.

In a further attempt at compositional energy, in some pieces Hickman juxtaposes a couple of vertical stripes of various lengths and widths with a thick horizontal stripe or two, but the resulting perpendicular shapes are still too steady and rigid. In Millelacs, for example, Hickman tries to gain power through the simplicity of its very tall, slightly off-center cross shape. Two black stripes, one of them broken so we see three stripes, lie against a quiet blue background; but the drama of this vertical shape is diluted by the anonymity of the stripes, which sink too peacefully into the blue areas. Hickman seems to be working in the manner of recent abstract painters like Brice Marden of New York and Gene Davis of Washington, D.C. The problem, however, is that this style is now old hat, as New Yorker Sherrie Levine realized when she painted her stripes on wood as a conscious act of appropriation several years ago.

Most of these large works are pretty enervated, but one piece, Christian, does manage some much-needed vitality. The blocky county shape is varied by a greater number of slim horizontal stripes than usual. The sense of compression created by filling the entire surface activates the space: the yellow stripes seem to vibrate off their black counterparts above and below, while the increased number and relative proximity of blister lines heightens the energy.

Christian could also point the way to a kind of thematic development. In the rest of “The County Series,” Hickman has paired a handful of county names with their corresponding geographical shapes but gone no further. Some of these names, however–like Christian and Defiance–are loaded with meaning. Hickman might profitably have asked: what is the relationship between the titles of these pieces and the arrangements of colored stripes they present? By making names, shapes, colors, and materials interact with the county theme, the artist might have generated some really fascinating discussion.

A hint of this potential dialogue emerges in the second group, the nine small works. Hanging in a row on their own freestanding wall, these works repeat the shapes and titles of the larger pieces. Not only are they reduced in scale, but each is a plain rectangle of walnut bound within a black steel box frame, as a traditional picture might be. Here the county shape is painted onto the surface in white gesso only, while black burned areas designate the negative space. Replacing the stripe motif with a simpler white county shape against black within the picture plane is much more effective in focusing attention on the series’ theme–it helps us visualize the interdependence of boundaries. We know the shape of the county in Rio Blanco III, for instance, because of the adjacent black areas that are not Rio Blanco. These black sections, however, could be fragments of another county that might appear in a subsequent painting as a complete white shape. Limiting the gesso color to white helps the viewer to make this crucial association, as does the less distracting, regularly four-sided picture format.

There is no doubt that Hickman is onto something in “The County Series.” His color sensibility in the large works is subtly beautiful, even though in combination with the static horizontal and vertical stripes it can have a rather lethargic effect. Though the series’ title and the shapes of individual works spark our curiosity, these pieces need deeper layers of meaning or emotion to hold our attention. One possibility would be to remove all titles and eliminate the current “county” theme. This would allow us to focus on the formal details of production, which may be where Hickman’s real concerns lie anyway. My vote, though, is for continuing conceptual development, for that almost always challenges an otherwise image-saturated audience to a higher level of participation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Tropea.