Categorizing art is a significant part of aesthetic experience. To be a fan of science fiction, for example, is to declare a passion not for one work of art, or even for art in general, but for a somewhat nebulous set of tropes and canons. Aesthetics is as much about context as it is about text. Genres and styles help explain what art matters, and what art means.
Gallery19‘s show “Woodn’t be the First Time,” which opens this Friday, March 18, groups art by material. The three artists represented, Robert Porazinski, Max Sansing, and Jacob van Loon, all present painting on wood panels. The gallery says this is “a nod to the Old Masters,” but this nod isn’t stylistic, for the most part—it’s simply the choice of medium.
Jacob van Loon paints complex colored geometric patterns, but they’re surrounded by a few, seemingly random white blotches that emphasize and highlight the grain of the wood. The result is something like Mondrian versus the Ents—human order and the grid are imposed on, or swallowed by, the blank march of nature. Depending on how the viewer squints, van Loon is either struggling or collaborating with the rigid surface.
For his part, Robert Porazinski leaves little of the grain visible in paintings like Intersection. Instead, he creates a gaudy contrast between an office-building-like structure on one end and a tree by a lake on the other, with a slick bolus of clean-edged feathery stuff in the middle. The woodiness of the background disappears beneath something that resembles a surreal billboard—an advertising of its own garish artificiality.
Max Sansing’s work doesn’t obliterate or struggle against the wood background—rather, it uses the grain as an ironic wink. Well Aware is a portrait of a black woman wearing an expression of exaggerated befuddlement while she stares straight at the viewer. Dabs of green and blue graffiti-esque paint coil around her neck, and a swab of orange is drawn under one eye. Behind her, the shadow outlines of two arrow shafts are painted against the wood background. The piece contrasts, and mocks, different markers of naturalness—the imagined native cultures of Africa or South America and the imagined native cultures of Ikea. The woman in the painting looks like she wants to get away from both. “This is ridiculous,” she seems to say. “Let me out of this stupid (conceptual and actual) wood.”
In different contexts, each of these artists’ work might take on a different resonance. Jacob van Loon’s use of the grain is subtle enough, for example, that it wouldn’t be hard to see it as abstract patterns (especially if it weren’t being shown in an exhibit with “wood” in the title). But when grouped together, the paintings all become, in one way or another, a comment on the format and all the things wood panel signifies—naturalness, classiness, materiality. “Woodn’t Be the First Time” does what all good art shows should do: it briefly creates its own natural, yet unnatural, genre.
“Woodn’t Be the First Time.” Opening reception: Fri 3/18, 6-9 PM. Through 3/29: Gallery19, 4839 Damen, 773-420-8071, gallery19chicago.com.