What many casual observers of abstract art don't understand is that abstraction doesn't mean a jumble or confusion or haphazard swiping of paint on a surface. The essential trait is an underlying structure that lends even the headiest or seemingly most chaotic work -- for example, pieces from the classic period of American Action Painting by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning -- a sense of strength and inevitability. Perhaps only the artist truly comprehends that structure's subtlety or full import.
Such thoughts arise from looking at abstract paintings displayed this month at local galleries. Let's begin with Lisa Weiss at L Ross Gallery, through April 30. Called "Common Thread," the exhibition includes five pieces by Lisa Weiss' father, Anton Weiss, a distinguished abstract artist who generously gives most of the gallery space to his daughter. Father and daughter live in Nashville.
Lisa Weiss is incredibly accomplished at the technical aspects of abstraction, all the methods of under- and over-painting, scraping and scumbling -- softening the colors or outlines by covering with a film of opaque or semi-opaque color or by rubbing -- smoothing and roughening. These paintings are mixed media on panel. The result is a surface of intriguing diversity of effects that manage to be smooth and contemplative.
Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1929-43) divided abstract art into two streams, the geometric and the organic. Weiss' work is definitely organic. The growth of these works is evident all across the picture plane -- and large planes they can be; the most expansive (and perhaps most impressive) of the paintings in the exhibition, "Light Field," measures 60-by-60 inches.
At first, "Light Field" looks like pale visual static, but gradually the eye perceives (or the imagination intuits) the presence of energy, almost a force field that encompasses the opposed authorities of growth and dissolution, solidity and evanescence, agitation and tranquility. Rather than a black hole sucking gravity and color into its maelstrom, in "Light Field," we have, as it were, a white hole -- white being the condition that reflects all colors -- that invites deep contemplation, both for its psychological effects and for the skill of its craftsmanship, seeming so spontaneous but actually deft and thoughtful.
The work is least effective when it makes landscape more referential, especially with a horizon line, or makes the organic specific, as in "Ephemeral Coast" or "Venus Flower," yet even these pieces radiate the artist's seamless half-earthy/half-mystical vision.
At Gallery Fifty-Six, Mike Coulson, who lives in Collierville, offers an ambitious array -- 26 pieces in the gallery's front room, three in a back room -- of abstract acrylic-on-canvas paintings that also fall into the organic camp, tackling the theme of the American landscape and the roads that run through it. Titled "Highwayscapes: A Road Trip," the exhibition makes its motif explicit by naming the pieces "Mile Marker" followed by a number and an explanation, as in "Mile Marker 101: Changing Lanes" and "Mile Marker 116: Middle of Nowhere."
Most of the paintings in the exhibition embody the strict straight lines of distant horizons or the curves of the shifting road, so much so that the device becomes more trope than motif, and the viewer longs for the artist to exercise less control over his material and convey more of a sense of improvisation. On the other hand, Coulson's feeling for color is ripe with implication, and his ability to pack the pieces with a perception of geographical and geological vastness is humbling.
As is the case with Weiss' show, the most impressive piece in the "Mile Marker" series is the largest, "Mile Marker 123: Headlights," coming in at a titanic 84-by-72 inches.
Not to be too perverse, but my favorite works in the exhibition are the four "Pink at Night" series pieces, not part of "Mile Marker." Pink these are indeed, and silver and gray and all shimmery; they embody a potent sensation of whimsy and cosmic play that the whole exhibition could use.
Anton Weiss and Lisa Weiss, 'Common Thread'
At L Ross Gallery, 5040 Sanderlin, Suite 104, through April 30. Call (901) 767-2200.
Mike Coulson, 'Highwayscapes: A Road Trip'
At Gallery Fifty Six, 2256 Central, through April 27. Call (901) 276-1251.