Icon Contemporary has made a habit out of two-person shows. It’s a solid recipe made even more effective by gallery owner Duane Paluska’s eye for reductive aesthetics and his firm willingness to pare his pairs.

Cassie Jones and James Marshall struck me as an intriguing combination. Jones’ work is hip, effervescent and whip-quick. Marshall’s is generally graphite gray – quite literally. His best-known works are drawings rubbed with pencils until the surfaces shine with nickel-toned graphite, and his sculptural bags are dipped dozens of times into graphite and glue. But Marshall’s work clearly conveys its conceptualist dedication to intervention via process, and that provides a striking perspective through which to see Jones’ work.

Jones’ paintings, after all, are fun and playful to the point of almost being cute. And while this ultimately helps them succeed, it can camouflage their rigor from many viewers. “There and Back” is rather typical: It features a game-like spiral moving out from the center of a white square panel in primary and secondary colors rendered in a style more like a chalk-drawn hopscotch game than fine art. The painting is easy to like because it so effectively conveys its pulsing system logic. But it does this so quickly that we sense it rather than think it – and that makes it harder to follow Jones’ conceptualist content.

Yet the quick motions of the work wind up matching both the jumpiness of the eye and the analytical gymnastics of the art-viewing mind. It is like looking at a children’s game board in which you can see what’s going to happen, and why.

And what would a game be if it didn’t look fun? Jones isn’t using a playful aesthetic simply to be hip, but to deploy her structuralist sensibilities about play and systems. In this show, with some help from Marshall, she nails it.

The effect of Marshall’s work on Jones’ work is subtle, but it is significant. It is particularly difficult to notice if you consider each work only through its own internal logic.

Marshall’s works in “New Paintings” may seem dedicated to internal logic (alone, each functions that way), but they are better revealed as elements of a much broader dialogue about abstract painting. This became clear to me only as I reached the end of the show, and clearer still when I went back through it again. The works become far more complex and interesting when they are seen as aspects of a broader dialogue between Marshall and Western abstraction.

The first work in the show, “Collusion of Fleshy Objects,” reads like an unapologetic response to Malevich’s mature suprematist paintings. What puzzled me initially was the dark cast pulled over the Russian abstract pioneer whose bright palette was much like Jones’.

But Marshall’s other works revealed that he is not conversing so much with specific artists as he is with genres of abstraction. “Lover’s Quarry,” for example, is topographical. It reads like a charcoal map with organic brown forms offset by silver rectangles.

Next to this work hangs “Legends from Greek Myths,” which features the cross-sectional logic we see, for example, in the nautical hardware-inspired imagery of Richard Keen. “Legends” also opens the door to the vast subject of our richly inconsistent notions of symmetry.

Hanging next to “Legends” is “Conversation with Rose” that floats three game-logic elements in a painterly field. While it could be a checkered tablecloth, I see a checkerboard; a green and white rectangle could be a drink or a ping pong table, etc. But whatever you make of the imagery, the painterly type is clear – contemporary “abstraction” that floats representational imagery in a vague painterly space reminiscent of Rose Period Picasso.

Marshall’s most impressive piece is in direct dialogue with his ever-swirling, arm-exhausting graphite drawings. “Caratunk Night” is a large square covered with heavily worked graphite. Playing against this metallically luscious achievement is a series of organic brown ovals. It’s a gorgeous thing, but the troublingly easy ovals of paint cast a deeply personal shadow over Marshall’s motivation for intervening within his signature conceptual process craft.

HAVING EXAMINED Marshall’s systems inquiries, seeing several of Jones’ pieces as switching paradigms becomes easier. “Matter of Time” and “You Were Only Waiting” act like rectangular map grids rendered in the style of New York City subway maps. But in shifts that follow page reading assumptions, from upper left to lower right, they change not just color but logic.

Jones’ “You Were Only Waiting” launched the Beatles “Blackbird” in my head as I read the title (it’s a line from the song). Paul McCartney’s tune, after all, was written as a response to a well-known piece for lute composed by J.S. Bach that has been very popular among guitarists. While a playful reference, “Blackbird” is a hopeful song about a dark subject (race issues in the United States) intentionally written in the relative major key (G) to Bach’s dance in E minor. And it is this kind of engagement among cultural productions that opens up endlessly rich conversations about systems, symmetries and paradigm shifts. Art, we are here reminded, can be a powerful moral fuel for social change. And revolutions, after all, only happen in societies that value culture.

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

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