Saturday, June 24, 2006

Is it by hand or by computer? It’s hard to tell.

by Kenneth Baker

SF-Chronicle-2006.06Alex Zecca’s abstract drawings — grids of colored lines precisely ruled on paper — look machine-made at first. Their idiosyncrasies, faint intimations of hand crafting, come forward very slowly, not through imperfections but through a tastefulness that, though straitjacketed in rigid parameters, we associate only with someone’s decision-making.

The drawings hang in the new Bryant Street quarters of Gallery 16 and Urban Digital Color.

Zecca appears to challenge us to articulate what, if anything, confirms for us the handmade nature of his drawings. I find that the work emanates a feeling of care taken with its details that I do not believe graphic design software could generate.

But this is a matter of belief.

In the tricky realm of contemporary culture, an artist just might put it about that he makes by hand something computer generated, later to embarrass credulous viewers like me with the truth. Zecca surely knows that his work will arouse such suspicions. So much the better if work that appears so void of reference nevertheless can heighten awareness of the context it enters.

Perhaps the dizzyingly unsystematic sequence of colors that buzzes vertically across “October 7, 2005” could have been randomly generated. But anyone studying it carefully will suspect Zecca of taking pleasure in deciding the unfolding of slivered colors, one by one.

Bear down also on the maroon horizontal bands, each composed of numerous lines, and you suspect that only the artist’s attention to detail made possible the chromatic modulations produced by the bright verticals showing through the dark striations.

Zecca’s drawings join a stream of rigorous abstract art that characteristically eliminates all reference. But look long enough at his work and you begin to feel that it dissects or plots the very grain of one’s optical awareness.

Rodriguez and Crotty at Hosfelt: Lordy Rodriguez’s “Landscapes” at Hosfelt also present themselves as abstract, but not as non-referential.

Rodriguez has spent several years making fictional maps, some of which re-envision real places with political or emotional points in mind.

His recent work at Hosfelt has a more generic quality. As in the past, it borrows the graphic language of contour maps.

In “Rippled Hills” (2005) and several other pieces on view, he plays with the sort of loose but systematic surface patterns characteristic of camouflage, with several implications.

Camouflage design today, pervading cheap clothing and other product design, evokes a militarized popular consciousness as it did not back when Andy Warhol (1928-1987) made his late camouflage paintings and prints.

Rodriguez rephrases some of the jokes embedded in Warhol’s use of camouflage: representation as abstraction, picturing something that purports to make seeing more difficult.

But recent events have shifted Rodriguez’s camo references into a different key, within a context where everything from computer games to the evening news offers us aerial reconnaissance imagery as a prelude to lethal destruction.

We might even understand Rodriguez’s images as fantasies of the earth trying to conceal itself from humankind’s “conquest of nature.”

Rodriguez’s pictures, like Warhol’s, incidentally parody the bio-morphism intermittently associated with Surrealist and abstract art. Several of Rodriguez’s pieces suggest microscope slide views of bone or tissue, darkly hinting again at terrain under threat, of contamination in this case.

While Rodriguez’s work has gained associative power as he has simplified it, the drawings at Hosfelt of fellow Los Angeles artist Russell Crotty have gone the other way.

Crotty’s ink drawings of night sky and land on paper-covered fiberglass spheres used to offer the haunting sense of spying on a mind’s-eye view of twilight as it might appear projected on the inside of someone’s skull. Recently he has incorporated writing into these inside-out panoramas, which turns their mute mystery prosaic.

Jeff Adams at Braunstein/Quay: Bay Area painter Jeff Adams might have subtitled his latest exhibition at Braunstein/Quay a group show, he takes such a relaxed and wayward approach to his work.

Just try to decide whether he means to mock or endorse the conventional belief in improvisational painting as a record of mood and temperament — or both, or neither.

It looks as if Adams had Anselm Kiefer on his mind when he made “Raccoon” (2006). Elsewhere Cy Twombly, Yves Klein and perhaps Paul Klee preoccupied him more.

Then again, the weird inner light and hint of nocturnal landscape in “Raccoon” may have come about purely from the rough treatment he gave the picture surface. It ended up unaccountably spellbinding in any case. And it looks like nothing else in the show, not even similarly absorbing canvases such as “AZO” (2006), “Season of Cups” (2005) and “Tonawanda” (2006).

Apparently with no agenda and little sense of direction taking him from one picture to the next, Adams leads us to the heart of painting as a practice of freedom. We would all like to wring a little miracle from a mess now and then. Occasionally, as Adams demonstrates, the educated contemporary painter actually gets to do it.