Matt Connors and Fergus Feehily

Dallas Museum of Art

Through August 14
by Erin Starr White

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      A conversation in and about abstract painting is taking place in Concentrations 54: Matt Connors and Fergus Feehily. Typically showcasing the work of a single artist, this most recent iteration of the series highlights the work of two painters using the idiom of abstraction to re-envision its merits. Organized by curator Jeffrey Grove as two small, discrete shows of the work of Berlin-based Fergus Feehily and New York-based Matt Connors, Concentrations 54 acknowledges abstract painting’s past, then dismantles and reuses its vocabulary to refreshing end. This is two painters exploring— for the most part successfully— ways in which contemporary abstraction can function as a series of open-ended investigations.

      Outside the exhibition’s entrance hang bracing reminders of the trajectory of abstract painting. An Ocean Park Diebenkorn presages the vibrant baby blues and cool mint greens of Connors’ best canvases. A monumental Sam Francis, paint sliding downward upon a cool white canvas, presages the thoughtfully unfilled centers of Feehily’s small compositions. The authority of these canonical works contrast nicely with Connors and Feehily’s work, foregrounding their irony and charm.

      The left half of Concentrations houses Feehily’s petite paintings on MDF and multimedia works in cloth and paper, a steady stream of works whose uniformity of size suggests a man-made horizon line. Feehily’s works are generally 8x10 inches, the familiar size of a sheet of loose-leaf paper. These paintings, abstract arrangements of carefully fashioned space, outshine the artist’s fabric compositions, which look like rote studio exercises in comparison. In Untitled (2010), Feehily has painted a sparse, geometric web, perhaps a micro-view of sugar crystals. The ground for this unfolding spatial framework is a mottled, grey-blue field that hovers just beneath the surface of the picture place like an impenetrable fog. Similarly, Into the Garden (2009) provides a smoky, lavender ground for a stratum of green, lozenge-shaped marks mingling with black specks that seem to vibrate, activating a neatly framed space. Simplicity itself, Feehily’s frames consist of two thin strips of wood— one top, one bottom— fastened in place with a screw in each of the painting’s corners. This framing solution belies the objectness of Feehily’s spatial creations; the screws subtly echo the animated flecks of dark paint, making the humble frame a central consideration in the piece. Several objects from the Museum’s encyclopedic collection have been selected by the artist and pepper the installation, spanning disparate eras and cultures; the morphological similarities these objects share with Feehily’s work foster deeper study of the artist’s simple yet sophisticated compositional strategies.

      The framing solution proves to be a strand connecting the two artists. In Connors’ You’re Gonna Take a Walk in the Rain and You’re Gonna Get Wet (2011) two brightly-colored framing strips (one Pepto pink and the other Kelly green) subtly and elegantly expand the pictorial space beyond the bounds of the canvas. Long, deliberate pencil marks delineate the space into sections that recall the immediacy of Agnes Martin’s meditative, slightly unsteady graphite lines. The unprimed canvas’ baby blue stain on the left and blood red one on the right create a naked center toward which oil from the intensely hued paint seeps. I am immediately reminded of Robert Motherwell’s pseudo-oozing forms— Connors does not pale in comparison. Though a few of Connors’ more brash, expressive paintings lack presence like formulaic academic exercises, more muted examples like Foil (2011) are revelatory. Here, a repeated crescent hovers above a field of hazy persimmon, taupe and denim blue, a Delaunayesque vision completely refashioned.

      Through smart study of the past and clever experimentation with its elements, Connors and Feehily forge a fresh approach to abstraction. The positioning of these works so near the heraldic canvases of post-war machismo make clear the point that abstract painting has life in it yet. 

      Erin Starr White is an art historian and writer living in Fort Worth. She received her MA in Art History from Texas Christian University, is a contributing art critic for Artlies and Art Papers and is currently Assistant Curator of Education for Student and Teacher Programs at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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