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Abstraction isn’t what it used to be


Mitchell Squire’s Man With Axe will be on display at the Des Moines Art Center through Feb. 8.

Mitchell Squire’s Man With Axe will be on display at the Des Moines Art Center through Feb. 8.

A number of exhibitions in Des Moines this month investigate a subject that has been dividing generations and offending traditionalists for a century — abstract art. The Des Moines Art Center’s “From Icon to Abstraction” recognizes the 100th anniversary of World War I by suggesting the possibility that abstract art did three things that are now easily understood: 1) It evolved from iconic art, which arguably was just as symbolic and mystical; 2) It developed as an absurd reaction to the absurdity of the Great War; 3) It eschewed dogma at a time when doing such was no longer a capital crime punishable by burning at the stake.

Drake University’s ongoing “The Comparison Project” is a philosophy of religion study that has offered lectures by Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic scholars about the ineffability of God, words, music and art. In conjunction with that, the Anderson Gallery’s “everyday abstraction” presents five contemporary abstract artists from around the nation through Jan. 23. Curator Benjamin Gardner argues that abstraction is now so commonplace that it’s no longer as impenetrable as it was when the style crashed the establishment party in the first half of the 20th century.

“Aspects of daily existence that we hold to be real — such as seeing corn in a field — are abstracted from their general context; they are removed from our general understanding of physical reality. We are more likely to encounter field corn as plastics, fuel or sweeteners than to eat the grain itself. Is it difficult then to imagine that abstract painting might reflect an understanding of life removed from its original physical context?” he asks.

Paintings by Jered Sprecher, Margaret Crowley, Brian Porray, Megan Kathol Bersett and Andrea Ferrigno are featured in the show. Porray’s canvases are saturated with bold color organized around ambiguous structures of diagonal lines. Spray paint, synthetic polymer and layered paper create anxiety, both in media and in composition. Literature from the exhibition suggests the Las Vegas artist might be conveying a sense of chaos that one might experience on his home town city’s Strip. Ferrigno’s abstracted, organic forms investigate what she terms the “existential terrain” of image making. Her “Mothering” is obviously aware of the term “multitasking.” Maggie Crowley’s “Richer than Christmas” could be using royal purple and the color of dried blood to suggest the religious origins of the holiday. Megan Kathol Bersett’s “Displaced” is obviously a deconstruction of parts. Jered Sprecher’s oils on canvas and linen give specific information about the subjects in titles like “Hearth” and “The Play Is Over.”

Mitchell Squires’ “I Like It Here,” at the Des Moines Art Center through Feb. 8, shows that representational art can also be abstract. One 10-panel panorama, “Man with an Axe,” is made from digital prints on sheer polyfabric. The panorama seems off because the photos are not pieced together naturally. Like the other works with the same title, there is no man with an axe to be seen.

Squires, in other pieces in the show, tries to define an artifact — “weapon< tool < artifact = two ends< one end< no ends,” he scribbles in an ink drawing. A video in the exhibition shows a man, from the shoulders down, wielding a two-ended axe through the air until exhausted. The man is dressed in a new, all-black outfit of a neck-high shirt and cargo pants, like a J. Crew version of an Islamic State assassin. Last week, a viral video originating from Shehab News Agency showed masked, black shirted Palestinians trying to put a hole in a concrete, Israeli wall. Oddly, they used the sharpened ends of their two-ended axes. They were wearing Levi’s, the invention of an American Jew.

Squires’ film was made more than a year ago, so any connection and all irony is in the eye of the beholder. That also is why abstraction is here to stay. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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