The paintings of Steven Alexander and Laura Duerwald, husband and wife from Pennsylvania, may not seem to be in conversation, at first glance. But they share the worthy concerns of color, design, conception, craft and the brush.

"Voice 1," Steven Alexander

“Voice 1,” Steven Alexander Photos courtesy of Steven Alexander and Laura Duerwald

The couple’s show, “Recent Paintings,” feature 10 works by Duerwald and 14 by Alexander, is on view at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick through July 2.

Alexander has some national prestige, with a Pollock-Krasner award and a residency at MoMA PS1. He is a professor at Marywood College and has been a visiting professor at Bowdoin College, where the couple’s daughter now attends. His works are reminiscent of American color field painting, with hard-edge stripes and an eye to reductive structures comprising abutting geometrical forms.

Duerwald’s black and white collage paintings either follow patterns of crisp stripes made of torn bits of black paper with an effect not unlike animal patterns found in nature or more straight forward formalist compositions.

Combined, their work – which is certainly not averse to attractiveness – makes for a very handsome and quiet show of brainy abstraction.

The simplest topic that the two painters take on in parallel is “the brush.” Neither’s work reveals brush marks, and Alexander goes out of his way to make even casual viewers aware that his tools are palette knives, squeegees and trowels.

But that is not to say there are no artist marks within the work. Duerwald’s torn bits of paper reveal the artist’s hand, as does her use of graphite and charcoal. Alexander’s marks are more geared to the interaction of the artist’s tools with the support; usually linen on a stretcher, and canvas in the larger works. Stretchers generally have a raised bevel near their edges to hold the canvas evenly without wood directly behind it (imagine a frame with a raised outside edge). As Alexander’s trowels, knives and squeegees drag the paint to and over that bevel, the superflat surface gets distressed and so we become conscious of the structure of the canvas and the internal framing.

"Template (In Violet)," Laura Duerwald

“Template (In Violet),” Laura Duerwald

Alexander’s underpainting (often a classical-referencing red) reaches just over the side and appears to have been held impressively in line by fine tape. This effect appears geared to the internal logic of the paintings’ edges, but it opens a dialogue with Duerwald’s work. Both artists function through design systems rather than old school brush-in-hand painterly composition. While we come away with a feel for individual works, the primary effect of the differences between the artists underscores their shared interests rather than the individuality of their works.

Alexander’s aesthetic driver is color, and his sensibilities are masterful. In “Tracer 4,” for example, a set of six vertical stripes, over a dark red ground visible at the edges, moves left to right with a set of three that progress from purple to powder blue then three that move right to left from a chalky light green to a darker, bluer green. It’s visual counterpoint laid out in stripes so clear that it feels analytical. “Voice 1” has a similar effect although based on bilateral symmetry: On the right side of a vertical red “zip” is a section of periwinkle blue and, on the left a chalky primary blue. (Alexander appears to mix something like titanium white to his colors to better control their opacity, so this chalkiness is pervasive but not unpleasant.) To balance the blues, Alexander uses a dark metallic stripe centered within them, a heavier bronze on the left and a lighter, brighter brass on the right.

 

"Palm 4," Steven Alexander

“Palm 4,” Steven Alexander

Alexander’s color shifts seek left-to-right balance that generally take two forms: The straight back-and-forth of “Tracer 4” and “Voice 1,” or a U-shaped pendulum motion. The latter is clear in “Optimo (Red),” which follows bands of grays under and to the side of a centered, large Matisse pink rectangle. In “Chameleon 6,” two vertical rectangles of brick and bronze are anchored by a pair of slender blue vertical segments at the bottom center. “Palm 4” swings back and forth on asymmetrical blue and yellow segments under larger yellow-green center rectangles topped by pink bands.

Alexander and Duerwald share a fine craft sensibility, particularly because they have self-consciously stripped the painterliness from their paintings. While some of Duerwald’s black and white works directly engage compositional logic (with a most welcome similarity to Ken Greenleaf’s extraordinary collages and charcoals and Mark Wethli’s exquisite Flasche paintings), her most original works, like “Template 9,” use subtle shifts of dark blues and flesh pinks within the black, white and beige strips to police their quavering bestial rhythms.

"Telemark II," Laura Duerwald

“Telemark II,” Laura Duerwald

While it is easy enough to appreciate the work of both artists on aesthetic terms, it is also possible to see the work taking sides in a broader debate about the state of American painting. While I tend to support craft-oriented abstraction resurrecting the object status of painting through skill and effort, many artists and critics are vehemently opposed to what they dismiss as decoration. Whereas decoration strikes me as a valid topic in Alexander’s and Duerwald’s painting – along with design, formalism, painting as craft and color as an element of systems painting – the art world is divided on the subject. Sometimes a painting is just a painting, right? But while not everyone chooses to see a work of abstract painting as part of a broader dialogue, we wouldn’t be able to see it at all (or care) if it weren’t engaged with culture – that messy, dynamic and sometimes explosive public arena where nothing gets to sit still for long.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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