study in surface and light: Roam (2006).
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work mixes art-historical reference with a personal and inventive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and historical references.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.
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.