ICON is often at its best with intermixed two-person shows. And the most satisfying pair I have seen there comprises Garry Mitchell and Henry Wolyniec.

Both can generally be labeled abstract painters, although Wolyniec largely uses collage and printed monotype elements. Mitchell, too, has expanded from his painted panels with a suite of most impressive monotypes.

Putting these artists together helps us see them both more clearly. And given the systems-oriented content, what comes into better focus are some extremely nuanced and intellectually delectable elements.

To a certain extent, Wolyniec is the bigger beneficiary. To see one of his grid-oriented collage abstractions is like watching a game of late cubist dominoes. The collages have a built-out-from-the-center feel like synthetic cubism. They share that same syncopatedly jumpy sense of rhythm. They feel like flat blocks of paper and painted forms stacked visually within a painting. And they showcase enough elements featuring painted textures that you never forget you’re looking at a painting.

The problem is that Wolyniec’s work is so aesthetically appealing in its application of decorative elements of abstraction that you might not bother to look past them. Moreover, his grids with domino-like circles on them clearly announce the musicality of their jaunty rhythms, counterpoint colors and syncopated spaces. And with music (like Bach), we don’t look for symbolism or language within their structures, we simply accept them as aesthetic forms.

But this is a tricky proposition. Since unlike music, painting (and let me be clear, whatever the materials, these are based wholly within traditions tethered to painting) does not reveal itself along a singular temporal strand. All of Wolyniec’s works feature specific leitmotifs. “HW14.7” and “HW1421,” for example, both look to square blocks of four dots. “HW14.21” includes an apt additional element – Mars-red squares that establish a backbeat throughout the piece.

Such leitmotifs indicate systems thinking, so we naturally assume Wolyniec based this or that piece on such a system. However, paintings are built from the ground up in layers, so we need to consider that what we find on the top might not be the subject of the sentence, but rather its culminating punctuation. Through an impressive bit of wit on Wolyniec’s part, this became apparent to me in “HW14.18”: Its strongest elements comprise a pair of trios of red dots – stacked vertically like stop lights. Sitting on top of everything, they anchored the image with the clarity of a red octagon sign at an intersection – or this period here.

With that inverted image of systems, I found myself reading back through Wolyniec’s work and finding not contrived systems but sensibilities. What had presented itself as Bach had become funkier – like jamming on a riff rather than slogging through the rules of proper counterpoint. And to me, that’s the best of both worlds: Wolyniec is both engagingly intelligent and playfully witty.

Mitchell’s abstractions are much jazzier insofar as they rely on dissonance, polyrhythms and even modal logic. To this end, Mitchell’s work tends to appear tenser than Wolyniec’s, but more powerful as well.

Mitchell’s “Dark Passenger,” for example, features a cloisonné (or leaded glass-like) polygon containing nine flat four-sided shapes with straight edges and subdued colors. To its left and below are hard-edged slate-blue forms, and otherwise the area surrounding the form is solid black … sort of. In fact, the form and the blue and black areas are painted over unfathomable seas of former geometry rendered by a vast palette. Around the central polygon are traces of orange, pink, brown, purple and blue. (If you can stomach it, sing – to yourself please – the color song from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” to get the full effect.)

And, O, the pentimenti! You may find yourself with your eye right up next to Mitchell’s surface, looking across it to let the raking light reveal the complexity of the painted-over layers. Ultimately, however, Mitchell will pull you back to the surface and its design virtuosity. In this piece, Mitchell uses a teeny cerulean blue triangle abutting a tiny pink polygon to send a 60-degree thread of the cerulean away from the main form through the slate-blue to the outer edge of the painting – which Mitchell uses to camouflage the slate form’s quantum shift in height at that very spot: Bam!

Largely hidden bits like this open the doors to the subtle punctuation of Mitchell’s work. His (agonizingly titled) “Self Portrait” develops between two strands of orange line that flare apart and come back together – folding at every corner as though drawn with ribbon. And with Mitchell’s work, we see genuinely functional systems, but they are used as vehicles for his painterly sensibilities. Mitchell challenges himself to use systems as gestures within his work, but he paints over these until he achieves a version that works.

And while Mitchell’s paintings are strong, his monotypes can be even better. They feel fresher and quicker, largely because their design sense is so immediate, but also because they crackle with the textured trace of the brayer used to pull the paint over the surface. The effect is very much like Mark Wethli’s brilliant, recent and similarly sized (though calmer) flasche paintings with their feints toward symmetry, nuanced threads and subtle reliance on punctuation.

Two of Mitchell’s monotypes (I frankly doubt this term, but it’s from the gallery – I think paintings, not prints) at the end of the show are most extraordinary. “Untitled M24” held me in place for a full half-hour; it’s a bifurcated purple form with a tech-rhythmed shimmy down the middle that pulses out to the left – and back. Despite its apparent simplicity, its subtleties defy my ability to list them. One of my favorite elements is the pair of lines created in the subtle distinction between whites that lead into the painting from the top left and out of the negative space at the bottom right of the form into what we could see as the black and purple margin at the bottom of the page. I was transfixed by the overlap and misfit where the central forms connect to the bottom black element in the center. To be sure, these systems are driven by Mitchell’s intense sensibilities, but they are no less brilliant just because their source is feeling rather than measurement.

Mitchell’s “Untitled M22” is all this and more because it feels like a spring color collaboration between Matisse and Mondrian at a Bowdoin class taught by Mark Wethli. (And from me, there could be no higher praise unless I slipped in a reference to Malevich.)

I left the show wondering if Mitchell will use the brayer to take his larger paintings in the design-oriented direction of his new monotypes – or if he will lean towards the gemlike complexity of the exquisite smallish works like “Allergic to Order.”

But whatever Mitchell does next, I want to see it.

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

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