The photo shows a bit of pavement running off toward the water, with some mountains caught in the distant evening twilight. It looks like it could be the end of the world, and it nearly is—an image captured by Caroline Allison of the drive-thru at an abandoned Burger King in Alaska. In the same gallery there are drip paintings by Richard Feaster: up close, the elongated grey marks contain delicate flakes of glinting metal. Contemplating these drips at short range, you can think of them as the world at the end of your nose.
The current Zeitgeist show includes these artists working at opposite extremes of scale along with sculptor Mark Bynon, who also works with abstract forms. While there are connections between the three artists (like a shared attention to surfaces), the show’s strongest impression is of the contrast between the two abstract artists and Allison’s more documentary work.
Allison, who is based in Brooklyn but graduated from Sewanee, has created several sets of photographs that capture neglected Middle American environments, such as the fans and peripheral activities at NASCAR races, or the landscapes of exurban zones. In this exhibit, she mixes and matches from several series, displaying most of the photos in a single tableau of pictures arranged in a 4-by-6 grid. The dominant images are from her series of interior views of VFW posts. The spaces are ordinary, anything but luxurious, with simple brick walls, acoustic tile ceilings, exposed wiring and linoleum floors. And, of course, American flags appear in most shots. The rooms are empty, a bit forlorn, but they still make claims on the viewer because they feel so familiar; they remind you of spaces you’ve entered but forgotten, despite their importance to others. The scenes have a kind of formal beauty. A couch is set up underneath two portraits of VFW officers. Directly in front of the couch sits a coffee table with a plastic flower centerpiece. All the elements are positioned symmetrically, pointing out order and beauty in an environment not commonly associated with aesthetic values.
Some of Allison’s other photos capture less intentional patterns, like the wave pattern painted on the back of a building (at Opry Mills) set next to a photo of an RV decorated with a similar pattern. The recurring patterns suggest an ordering impulse in the universe, expressed in one instance by middle-aged men at VFW posts and then in random convergences of commercial design choices. You can find them if you know how to look at the world.
If Allison’s photos find everyday, offhand order, Feaster and Bynon are engaged in the extremely meticulous construction of order. Feaster’s paintings in this show involve controlled drops of pigment on panel and paper that create curtains of color, most overlaid on a few graphite grid lines and overpainted with elliptical shapes. Feaster experiments with a variety of pigments made from metals like aluminum and pewter. The metal-based pigments shimmer as the metal flakes pick up light. The pigment in “Sikhing, Hyding” has a gold metallic cast, giving it a lustrous quality that suggests devotional art, a correspondence reinforced by the presence of the word “Sikh” in the title.
These paintings have a high level of craft. The exotic pigments recall Renaissance artists who mixed their paints according to secret personal recipes, mixtures that might include material like ground glass to enhance the color. And Feaster handles the pigment with utmost care. The placement and patterns seem precise, despite being applied through drips, and the details—gridlines, small brushstrokes—are particular and exact.
One of the pieces, “Picaro,” includes a distinctive element—text. The painting looks much like the others, with a bunch of elongated drips raining down, but up close you see that it is painted on a surface covered with relief lettering. The relief patterns include a map of India and what appears to be a discussion of Indian art. The allusion to faraway India goes well with the title’s reference to picaresque tales of adventure like Don Quixote, and the text underscores Feaster’s fine craftsmanship by associating it with Indian practices like Mughal miniature painting.
Bynon appeared in a group show at Zeitgeist last summer, and he’s back with more examples of sculptures in which he works and reworks the surfaces of simple wood forms, circles and squares, making them shine like metal. According to Zeitgeist gallery owner Janice Zeitlin, Bynon uses up to 15 layers in these pieces, including paint, gold leaf and lacquer. The result is an exploration of everything a surface can have—color, pattern, lines and depth, for starters. In “Tablet x 4 Green/Gold (Circle),” four circular forms in a two by two formation all have a general green color, but the upper left and lower right ones are lighter, more yellowy than the other two. Subtle straight lines cross the surfaces, formed by the edges of the underlying sheets of gold leaf. There is a rich interplay as the lighter shades of green give way to darker within each circle. For such simple forms, they reward prolonged viewing by revealing new complexities of color and pattern.
The most complicated pieces work with the visual effect of concave/convex surfaces and textures. “Uno Pink (Circle)” has a central nub surrounded by two circular ridges. The reflections of the highly polished surface create an even greater illusion of depth below a surface. The four circles in “Quattro Pink Gold” are concave and scored with a set of concentric circles that cause a reflection effect in which rays cross the surface. These effects add one more way in which Bynon’s surfaces come alive, belying their static nature.
In addition to their shared pursuit of abstraction, Bynon and Feaster practice an art that requires deep technical commitment, and both are attuned to the visual seductions of metallic colors. They are also idealists, locating their work in a realm that does not directly connect to details in the external world. By comparison, Allison’s photography is downright austere, and tied firmly to the ground of Middle American landscapes that are both the middle of the universe (for the race fans or vets) and the middle of nowhere (indistinguishable from similar scenes across the country). Her work converges with Feaster and Bynon through the way in which she also has captured “no-places,” and in the way all art removes itself to an ideal plane.