“Woods Walk Fall,” by Brooke Nixon, acrylic on wood panel, 24 by 24 inches, 2016. Photo by Zoe Theberge

The abstract paintings and drawings by Brooke Nixon and Ellen Golden now on view at Icon Contemporary in Brunswick start in different places but move toward each other in surprising ways. Nixon’s works begin with highly structured architectural grids, while the foundation of Golden’s work is marks that grow into systems. Two of Golden’s works are grids, but even these ultimately return the viewer’s eye to the tiny marks that fill their spaces, the way champagne bubbles fill a glass and capture our attention: We see the glass. We see it’s full. We see the fizziness of the liquid. And only then are we able to see the plumes of tiny bubbles building from the bottom like reverse rain.

The marks in Golden’s grid works, like “Distraction,” are the tiniest of hand-drawn bubbles, densely compressed so that they don’t appear until we work our way back to them.

Golden also has a few pointy-triangled el Lissitzky-like abstractions, as in “It May Be What You think,” but most of her work takes the form of dense constellations of her tiny marks. Even when there are geometric forms that offer a sense of shape to them, Golden’s works are still dominated by her clustered marks. Her marks are probably most easily compared to Mark Tobey’s mid-century “white writing,” only Golden’s works tend to be dark marks on white paper grounds.

Where Golden and Nixon come together is in the sensation of precision. Golden’s even textures and floating rhythms only lilt with the most pleasant of cloud-like ethereal looseness. Her strongest and most mesmerizing works include the allover constellations of bubbly marks, as in “Concentration” and the inky bits of “Focus.” When she moves away from looser works into the more insistently geometrical compositions, her organic sense of flow fades a bit. Even then, her precise touch gets to play more of a leading role.

“Hope,” by Brooke Nixon, acrylic on wood panel, 12 by 12 inches, 2017. Photo by Zoe Theberge

Nixon’s painted panels build on grids of triangles that often cluster to form a double downward parallelogram shape similar to the fletching of a down-pointed arrow. Nixon uses these forms to move her compositions between flat hard-edged abstractions and the spatially complicated three-dimensional world of digital blocks. Up close, we see them as exquisite objects in which every shape, border, intersection or over-painted line is easily assigned full marks for intentionality. From a distance, the works take on a contemporary flavor of Victor Vasarley’s Op-Art compositions, though the once “psychedelic” optical gymnastics now remind us of computer-aided design and video game spaces.

“Distraction,” by Ellen Golden, ink on paper, 2016. Photo by Jay York

Like Golden’s work, Nixon’s painting is so precise that it draws us in to see how deep the precision goes. This is our critical habit with detail, but instead of seeing a breakdown (like pixelation), Nixon rewards our closer look with crispy traces that feel like tiny prizes. In the lower right corner of “Hope,” for example, our close look reveals a razor-drawn line following the purple/yellow border back through the solid gray of the neighboring shape. And we are rewarded with seeing red paint peering out under the edge of the green form below the yellow. The color offers an impressive hint not only of skill and craft, but of intelligent editing. Nixon isn’t calculating her paintings, but composing them – editing them with an artist’s sensibility.

Each of Nixon’s works exudes individual distinctions and decisions. “Snow Day” is practically an argyle grid except for the horizontal rectangles (collaged paper?) barely visible under the paint. These force us away from reading work as simple color design, by bringing us in very close to question the artist’s intent in the making of the painting object.

“It May Be What You Think,” by Ellen Golden, ink on paper, 2017. Photo by Ellen Golden

In “Woods Walk Fall,” Nixon breaks up her parallelograms and lozenges into the geometrical blocks of a digital landscape replete with illusion: a roofed house, a box, a hole. The illusion disappears when she brings us in close with detailed pencil lines but pops back into being with even a few steps back.

“November Light” similarly sets up a complex composition with night browns, but these turn a folded yellow shape into the interior light flooding out of a door into the night landscape. The effect is to completely transform the rest of the structure the moment we grasp any of these forms as architecturally representational. That the works can bounce back and forth is testament to Nixon’s skills both in applying paint and designing with color.

Where Nixon and Golden diverge is in our sense of their process. Even when she does use a grid, Golden’s work feels unmapped and process-intense, as though she fully expects to find uneditable rhythms within her work as they near completion. Nixon, on the other hand, appears to finish her works in a manner more akin to postwar American abstraction, with lots of looking and a willingness to append and edit, honing the ever-narrowing path as she approaches the completion of the work. The effect of this is quite clear: While Golden’s work is driven by the aesthetic of her process, the standard for Nixon’s work rides her decisions and, in particular, her set of final judgments.

Golden and Nixon follow two very different approaches to completion, and yet they come together, reflect off on another and ultimately diverge on their own paths.

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

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