Mala Breuer: Recent Paintings

at TBA Exhibition Space,

through October 12

Adelheid Mers:

Projections: Acts

at Tough Gallery, through October 12

By Fred Camper

Mala Breuer’s 20 abstract canvases at TBA might be mistaken for wallpaper at first. Small squiggly marks of paint recalling vine leaves, tadpoles, raindrops, childlike daubs march up and down in broad bands. In 16 of her untitled canvases, whether the picture is six feet square or 16 inches square the bands are about the width of a hand; in 4 smaller ones they’re narrower. I liked them almost from the first, and the longer I looked at them, the more uncannily alive her marks began to seem. Made with a palette knife, their lower portions often trail off into thin streaks like a comet’s tail.

What bring these marks to life are their small differences. Breuer’s limited range of shapes ensures a certain uniformity–there are only so many ways to arrange a few squiggles–but her spontaneous way of working rules out exact copies. Breuer also calculates by eye the distances between the ruled pencil lines that define the broad vertical bands. Thus the widths too are unlikely to ever repeat exactly.

These patterns concentrate one’s perceptions to the point where slight variations become significant surprises. Most of the marks are close to vertical; when two marks meet they’re usually oriented similarly so that one seems to continue the other, though sometimes a slight cusp at their juncture interrupts the vertical flow. More often they don’t meet, coming close as if in a gentle dialogue. In any case the marks seem cousins, inhabitants of the same world. Only occasionally do they seem to collide; even more rarely do they make a cross. These canvases have the dynamism of an intentionally asymmetric garden, the feeling of continuous variation found in many types of music. They also have a spiritual dimension. Their verticality leads the eye above and below the picture area, almost literally extending the patterns into space, implying a larger continuum than could ever be contained in a finite rectangle. This is part of Breuer’s intent: “That’s one reason I don’t like frames,” she told me. “I want the effect to be one of infinity.”

Born in Oakland, California, in 1927, Breuer studied at the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute) beginning in 1946, during its most fabled period: her instructors included Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Park. “I felt like it was the beginning of my life,” she says. She recalls a split there between realists and abstractionists: “A student really had to make the choice. I was a beginning student, but by the second or third semester I made a strong decision that it was abstract painting that I wanted to do. From the beginning it felt less materialistic and more spiritual.”

At the school she also first listened seriously to Bach, whose music was played on recordings in the auditorium where students took breaks. “It was absolutely exquisite to me, always inspiring, with its wonderful repetition of small motifs again and again in different ways.” In 1948 Breuer married, and later she had children and divorced; though she continued to make art she wasn’t able to pursue it full-time. In 1976, when her children were grown, she moved to New York, where she lived for eight years. Renting part of a loft from Julian Schnabel–who was just becoming famous, in part for canvases that included broken plates–she recalls with amusement being startled by the sounds of crockery being smashed on the other side of the wall as she pursued her quiet abstractions.

It was in New York that she began making abstract marks with a palette knife, but she describes her paintings of that time as heavier, with more colors, lots of blacks, and less open space. When she moved to northern New Mexico in 1984, she found that her paintings became lighter and that the larger ones were more open. Her present style dates back four or five years.

Many of the canvases at TBA are wonderfully open and radiant. The marks themselves are often almost pure white against an off-white canvas ground. Sometimes the marks are pale pink or yellow or cream; in a few smaller ones, the marks and ground are darker. The light colors tend to dematerialize Breuer’s work, as does the beeswax she mixes with her oils. Her original purpose was to speed the paint’s drying, but she came to like the slight sheen beeswax gave, making the paint more luminous and reflective. Sometimes, when the marks are relatively thick, they create tiny relief effects, little shadows at their lower edges. These effects almost give the marks a life of their own, as if they were little living beings.

In part because Breuer places her marks in continuous bands rather than organizing them around a central compositional focus, there’s a kind of modesty to her work: she abjures the traditional artist’s role as creator of a hierarchy of forms and meanings. Instead she almost humbly opens up to something seemingly outside herself, and outside the viewer. Each canvas is a window onto a larger universe–of comets or tadpoles or raindrops–and Breuer’s true subject is this imagined world, which extends far beyond any picture’s borders. The longer I looked at her paintings, the less I felt I was looking into an artist’s “personality” and the more I recalled other kinds of looking–gazing, for example, into a starlit sky.

At first Adelheid Mers’s seven pieces at Tough seem the opposite of Breuer’s almost evanescent paintings. Five of them are aluminum-gray wall-mounted sculptures bearing the imprints of her own body–marks left by her fingers and feet, which cause a viewer to think of his body. A German born in Dusseldorf in 1960 who’s lived in Chicago since 1988, Mers connects her interest in the way individuals relate to the space around them to first encountering the more open spaces of the United States at 19. Interested in phenomenology–she mentioned to me the philosophers Husserl and Merleau-Ponty–she writes in her exhibition statement that she wants to explore how “the triad time/space/individual forms a unit, and I want to determine a shape and size this unit might possess.”

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s read an artist’s statement and thought “Huh?” or “I don’t think so,” but Mers’s really does illuminate her work. Her five body sculptures, made by pressing her hands or feet into Plasticine and then casting plastic from the imprint, refer to the movement of a body in space and to the time it took to make those movements. In the large cross shape of Right Index Finger, Twice, each band is an extended curve made by running a finger through Plasticine. The “X” recalls the primitive signature of an illiterate person, just as the slight irregularities of the two intersecting bands evoke the imperfect geometries of all human movements.

But Mers also deflects one’s natural reading of Right Index Finger, Twice as an X or a cross. Though the lines are not small–one is five feet long–the work’s apparent assertiveness is undercut by tiny bumps, almost like cusps, interrupting the bands–perhaps places where Mers’s finger slowed or stopped momentarily. The line’s direction stays the same, but these tiny blips are like bumps in a road, giving each journey a tentative texture. Moreover the skewed orientation of the cross on the wall makes it neither a cross nor an X, both shapes with a certain history in our culture. Mers’s bumps and curves recall neither the absoluteness of religion nor the straightforwardness of written language nor the ideal forms of minimalist art but the almost random motions of a human body. While this unpredictability surely relates to her stated theme, it also gives her works a provisionality like Breuer’s. Both artists deny their works the status of finished objects meant to impose their truths on the viewer, instead presenting the work as a pathway to a deepened understanding.

The other four of Mers’s body castings also include random “imperfections.” The toes in Strip overlap one another almost chaotically; we never see the imprint of a complete foot. The single band created by Mers’s thumb in Thumb Swipe not only has a few knucklelike bumps on it but is mounted at a 45-degree angle to the wall, somewhat defamiliarizing this record of an ordinary gesture. And when light reflects off the aluminum paint on these five works, part of the surface becomes almost white, rhyming with the gallery wall, while the rest retains a gray neutrality, less a color than a way station between white and black. Each of these objects not only records a body but also seems about to vanish into the gallery’s white walls or dark floor.

Mers, who used a photo of herself as a child on the card announcing this exhibit, recalls making all sorts of art during childhood, “until school pretty much destroyed it”: instead of making free-form collages and paintings, she began drawing little princesses and ships on the Rhine. But before she started school her parents let her paint “all over the kitchen cabinets. Every day my mom cleaned it up at night.” Her student work included stretched-plastic sculptures inspired by views out of train windows; she also recalls an assignment to “make a sculpture out of a block of plaster.” She had a contrary impulse, and made a motion in the air with her hands. “I had this idea that I just wanted to draw in the air, I didn’t want to use materials.”

One of her professors at Dusseldorf’s Academy of Fine Arts made kinetic light sculptures in the 60s, which she suspects she would have seen as a child. These–along with installations by Robert Irwin and James Turrell, which she saw much later–helped lead to the light pieces Mers has been making since 1994. In the larger of the two on view at Tough, Scenic Overlook – 6 Projections, colored gels and masks inside six ceiling spots create colored geometrical forms on the cement floor of this basement space. The piece clearly reflects Mers’s interest in placing the body in space and time. Walk through it and you intercept the light, becoming a part of it. And it’s been made for this particular room, curling around several support pillars and gaining its texture from the gallery floor’s rough, cracked surface. Light, space, and viewer are interdependent; the artwork is dematerialized, a way of experiencing space rather than an object in itself.

The suggestion of landscape in the title is carried through in the work. The floor’s cracks and relief effects, enhanced by the light, become inseparable from the colors. The more geometrical shapes suggest countries on a map, as does the juxtaposition of primary colors. One also thinks of minimal art; in particular a red circle close to the entrance recalls minimalists’ preference for “perfect” geometrical shapes. But an orange shape with an almost cartoonish bulbous border suggestive of a jigsaw-puzzle piece starts to quietly, even jokingly wink at the red. In the same way the “imperfect” elements of Mers’s body sculptures’ undercut their authority.

Other elements in Scenic Overlook – 6 Projections also lead to a feeling of contingency: the way the viewer’s body interrupts the light, the way overlapping areas of light combine to make new colors, the way the light seems inseparable from the gallery floor. One cannot experience this work as an object; rather, it is inseparable from the space and time of the viewer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Work by Mala Breuer/”Scenic Overlook-6 Projections” by Adelheid Mers.