Li Lin Lee: Barbie Meets the Talismans

at Walsh, through October 11

Rodney Carswell: Square

at Thomas McCormick, through October 19

While there are abstract painters who explore the possibilities of line, it would be a mistake to say that Mondrian’s or Barnett Newman’s paintings are “about” line: their effect is to transport the viewer, partly through painterly nuances not apparent in reproductions.

The shapes inventoried in Li Lin Lee’s Symbiology Series, one of 20 works on view at Walsh, in some ways have an even greater transformative, meditative effect. (The series consists of 32 nine-by-eight-inch paintings on paper, but only 28 are on view here, displayed in a grid.) Each painting is structured around a central shape floating in a field of color. While each design is different, all have a kind of symmetry. In one, an up arrow is balanced by a down arrow, placed on either side of an elliptical blob. Several are structured around X or cross shapes. In another, a single line floats in a luminous field.

The variety of elements undercuts the authority of any particular shape. Within a single painting, lines meet a curve, or a line in one direction is paired with a line in another, or light is paired with darkness–and as I viewed the paintings I felt myself grow lighter. The series as a whole has the same effect. Contributing to the sense of dissolution are the irregularities of the color fields: Lee applied the pigment with very little binder, making the paint less glossy, and rubbed it to further roughen the surface. But it’s the delicacy of color and the gentle luminousness of these simple designs that undermine materiality.

Lee says that the pieces in Symbiology Series are inspired by tantric Buddhist paintings, “very simple images that a person paints or draws and then stares at while meditating.” Other pieces in the show have a similar effect. The Bather is a harmonious work full of curvy shapes in shades of blue, yellow, and greenish brown, the blues almost perfectly balanced between lighter and darker shades, the yellow both balancing the blue and blending with it in dull green. For another group of works, Lee collaborated with his brother Li Young Lee, a poet, pairing poems with designs. Stillness Standing includes the lines “all that distance / beyond embrace / what is it / but our own infinity?”

Lee, a Chicagoan for the last two decades, was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1955 to Chinese parents. His dad was a philosophy professor who’d previously been a doctor; after the family emigrated to the United States, his father studied theology and became a Presbyterian minister. But in the tradition of educated Chinese, they “always had art around the house, and my father also painted on weekends, traditional Chinese ink-and-brush watercolor style. He had us alongside scribbling along with him. Because of his background, my father always mixed in a lot of ideas–there were Buddhist, Taoist, even Hindu ways of looking at life along with his Christian ideas.”

Other paintings in Lee’s show were influenced by Polynesian religious statues, but they “wound up with this pop feeling,” he says. However, despite the show’s title (which the gallery gave it), there are no Barbies here. Most of the paintings set several simple shapes against a highly variegated field Lee produces by placing six or more colors at the top edge, then pulling them down with a spatula. Each vaguely figural shape in Girl Toys has its own streaks of color, which cause the shapes to both contrast and blend in with the background, lessening distinctions and creating a kind of harmony and unity.

Some of the paintings include anomalous elements, however. In Tropitone a complex, almost chaotic field of blue and white is interrupted by lines and rounded rectangles in solid colors. What’s interesting here is how the solid shapes disrupt unity. Unmodified by smearing or other internal contrasts, they assert themselves in the manner of pop-culture objects–an assertion Lee makes seem odd, almost wrong, because of the way they stand out from the much suppler background while offering far less variety. In a culture as full of itself as our own, his way of undercutting objects’ power means this work is as important as any being made today.

While there’s nothing particularly Buddhist about Rodney Carswell’s “Square” exhibit of 14 abstract paintings and drawings at Thomas McCormick, his playful, almost humorous treatment of squares and rectangles denies the usual minimalist connection between geometrical shapes and truth, exploding the idea that specific meanings inhere in specific shapes. A professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Carswell was born in Carmel, California, in 1946 and grew up in Santa Fe, where his family’s social circle included lots of artists. He identifies as influences postminimalists such as Eva Hesse and Jackie Winsor, “who were obviously tutored by minimalism,” he says, “but weren’t satisfied with the absolutism of it.” Building up layers of oil paint, then adding layers of oil and wax, Carswell says he’s referring to the human body, “trying to build something that feels believable.”

That tangible presence is part of his work but not all. The large P0204, constructed of four rectangular canvas panels, does have solidity and mass, but four thick red lines that intersect to form a square and cross the boundaries of the panels undercut their solidity. In P0201 the canvas is shaped like an off-kilter cross, on which an even more off-kilter red cross is painted. Within the red area are more than two dozen rectangles, most of them white, and set within most of them are smaller colored rectangles in varying spatial relationships to the white. The variety and quantity of rectangles in the show–they’re everywhere and can apparently take almost any shape, color, or position–sabotages the notion that they have any meaning in themselves.

Other works include rectangular cutout spaces. P (s) 0201 consists of an odd-shaped piece of wood covered with colored squares arranged in lines that recall Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. But these lines turning abrupt corners are set against the gallery wall, not a painted background–their support, their matrix, has vanished. The center of P0203 is cut out, forming a right-angled but highly asymmetrical figure: the square turned into a hole. Overall the painting is dark green, interrupted by smaller squares in muted colors around the open area. Carswell doesn’t necessarily favor emptiness over solidity or muted colors over bright ones; rather he denies priority to any particular version of the rectangle. There’s no link between the material and the spiritual, no hidden truth in visual forms.