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A study in surface and light: Roam (2006).

Abstract Wit

 By Nadine Wasserman

Positions: Gregory Coates

Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany, through March 16


Despite the fact that it is one of the nicest “white cube” exhibition spaces in the area, I rarely find reason to go to the Opalka Gallery. The programming, quite honestly, is less than inspiring. I was hopeful back in mid-2006, when Robert Beck had an exhibition there, that a change was in the air. However, it has taken until now for another exhibition to come along that is worthy of the space. Positions: Gregory Coates is exactly the kind of show that works well in this sort of venue.

I was not familiar with the work of Gregory Coates until I saw it recently in Expressions in Blue, currently up at the New York State Museum. His work stood out from most of the others in the exhibition. Not long after seeing it, I was surprised to find out, while perusing the Opalka Web site, that Coates was about to have a solo exhibition there. I was eager to see his work displayed in a space that was more conducive to contemporary art.

Existing somewhere between painting and sculpture, Coates’ work mixes art-historical reference with a personal and inventive style. While his main inquiry is into the nature of abstraction, like most abstract artists, Coates pursues more than just formal vocabularies such as shape and color. Many works allude to other artists or art movements, as well as make cultural and historical references. For example, How Do You Like Me Now is clearly a tribute to David Hammons. Even without the title, which refers to the Hammons piece depicting Jesse Jackson as a white man, Hammons’ influence is quite clear, particularly in the way Coates uses found materials.

Other influences apparent in the exhibition include Yves Klein, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, and Jannis Kounellis. Even Coates’s contemporary Chakaia Booker comes to mind. Despite the references, Coates renders each piece with a unique twist. In Kiki, Short for Christine, Coates both echoes and subverts Newman’s vertical “zips” by creating a horizontal space between two rectangles. Additionally, Coates adds texture by applying paint to the rubber tubing wrapped tightly around each section. In a similar fashion, 3x4=1 is a messier version of Judd. While Coates grids out 12 rectangular shapes, he creates a counterpoint to Judd’s sleek lines and polished surfaces by wrapping each piece with rubber and adding either blue, yellow, or white acrylic paint, while leaving one black.

Three large paintings titled Daytime, Nighttime, and Noontime, recall abstract expressionist works, particularly by Jasper Johns. Using a mixture of paint and feathers, Coates explores subtle variations in paint, surface, ground, form, volume, and image. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the curator explains that these paintings are about loss. But rather than focus specifically on grief and death these works are contemplative rather than declarative. Another feather painting included is part of the installation Monument for Steve Cannon. Cannon was a retired city of New York professor who founded an arts and cultural organization called A Gathering of the Tribes in 1991, dedicated to multi-disciplinary arts from diverse perspectives. Aside from this installation, there is only one floor piece in the exhibition. Strut, which actually hangs from the ceiling, is the most lyrical piece in the show. Made with hanging rubber tied together in various places, it syncopates the overall installation. While the painted works are dramatic, they function in a different way than Strut, which is more visceral and raw in its materiality. It is a complex piece in that it is at once rough and delicate, energetic and defeated, playful and somber.

Meander, Roam, and Flounce are each made from industrial plastic wrapped around wood. While these works are interesting studies in surface, light, dimensionality, and process, they are ultimately less compelling than the other pieces in the exhibition. Despite this, they add to the overall rhythm of the exhibition which is nicely curated and contains just the right amount of work.

Coates’ overall endeavor is to challenge boundaries. He chose the title, Positions, not only because it refers to Jacques Derrida but because it reveals his own feelings about the junctures between art and architecture, sculpture and painting, openness and enclosure, and power and displacement. It’s a thought-provoking show that is perfect for a university gallery. The work is accessible on multiple levels, which makes it appealing to a broad audience. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait a year and a half to see another show like it at the Opalka Gallery.

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