An assortment of Henry Wolyniec’s abstract works in “Relief” at Speedwell Projects. Photos by Kyle Dubay/Courtesy of Speedwell Projects

We tend to think of music as an art of harmonies. But, really, it’s about managing dissonance. Without dissonance, there is no motion or development. Music and visual art are two of our cultural mainstays of non-verbal thought, practices in which there is no doubt that the fluent artist is doing something intelligent and intentionally structured that is beyond words in its active form.

That instrumental music and abstract art share common qualities is easy enough for most anyone awake in this cultural moment to sense: forms, phrases, time, tone, colors, loudness, silence and so on.

I have long admired Henry Wolyniec’s tonal, grid-oriented abstract images. He uses printing techniques within them, but let there be no doubt that they are abstract paintings through and through.

Wolyniec’s works in “Relief” include collages and sculpture. Photo by Kyle Dubay/Courtesy of Speedwell Projects

Wolyniec’s works in “Relief,” now on view at Speedwell Projects, mostly feature mono-printed forms loosely enough placed so that they fade in and out of the notion of a grid. He works on colored paper, so even the background space offers contextual tonality.

Tonality is something anyone who has ever heard music understands, but because music operates beyond common verbal labels, it occupies a space for which we generally agree that we don’t need words. We can feel it. We like it or we don’t. It works or it doesn’t. And this is precisely enough for us to “understand” or “get” any given work.

Wolyniec’s pictures work for me, because, like for most viewers, I “get” them: I respond to them. I feel their tonal motions, their dissonant shifts, their harmonies, their systems logic. Their textures and compositions are appealing to me. They’re satisfying.

For many abstract painters – and their viewing audience – establishing and communicating a system is enough. It’s like a groove in music, or a delivered idea in poetry. But Wolyniec’s musicality goes beyond this simple standard of abstraction. His works employ a practical grammar of tones and textures. He floats forms above each other, and leads them, then, to fade behind or back to the front. His notions of color, form and texture certainly can be described in visual terms – and yet I believe that any of his pictures far outstrips my ability to convey what would be your experience of it.

Scrappy sets of ink or paint-dotted rectangles fade in and out of our visual scanning of Wolyniec’s paintings. To glance at the works is one thing, but even 10 seconds in front of a single piece begins to deliver their shifting and fading tonality into musicality. And his sense of design – a complicated word dating back to the original Italian term for “drawing” (disegno) – is rich enough to develop in time, a key quality of the original Italian term “composizione.” Indeed, when folks like Michelangelo or Raphael discussed composition, they were talking about how the narrative qualities of the work (say, the story of Saint George and the Dragon) unfolded visually in relation to the elements of the verbal story. To totally geek-out on this for a moment, their understanding was rooted in the art of classical rhetoric, which, in turn, incorporated “the modes” – the different scales of music, and the moods they represented. Any set of notes played on the white keys one-by-one up an octave on a piano is a different “mode.” And while we now pretty much only acknowledge the major (C to C) and its relative minor (a to a – Aeolian), our classical forebears valued them all, to the point where the b to b (Locrian) was outlawed in ancient Greece. (Imagine that soul-shifting blue-note sung as a passing tone by your favorite ’50s jazz singer.) This is the stuff of “modes,” and it’s been long and deeply connected to painting. It’s helpful to connect modes to painting “genres” (landscape, portraiture, etc.) but we have now largely forgotten the depth and sophistication of what expectations would have been established by a rhetorical mode – since the term “rhetoric” now has a pejorative cast, but I mean it in the sense of the erudite classical art.

Is this relevant to Wolyniec’s pictures in “Relief?” Yes: I have no doubt.

I am absolutely not suggesting that we need to think in these terms when we look at Wolyniec’s work – quite the opposite. Sure, we can parse, say, Bach in terms of music theory, but in the end, Bach’s greatness is more apparent when you turn off your verbal faculties to listen, feel – and enjoy. My point is to suggest that Wolyniec is a brilliant systems-oriented visual artist and open the dialogue about how and why his work is so compelling. The last thing I mean to do is kill his work to dissect it. “Shut up and listen,” comes to mind. See it with an open mind. Talk about it, maybe, later.

My experience of “Relief” reminded me of a combination of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports,” a slow piece of shifting neutral tones (imagine Wolyniec’s rectangular, printed shapes) and the insistently intense forms of Philip Glass that fanatically flutter and muscularly modulate (note the base of that musical term is “mode”) bit by bit over time.

While most of the works don’t make obvious musical references, I see in “HW18.28” a specific set of references to music, including felt (as in the stuff of fuzz) dots that feel very much like clarinet or saxophone keys/pads set out in ways that both reference musicality and the systems-oriented shape of the instruments. Black, yellow, red and blue, it is jazzy, fun and no less playful than it is brilliant. And make no mistake: It is brilliant.

Wolyniec’s “HW18.25.”

“Hw18.25” opens more playfully onto its light autumn red paper. Wolyniec pushes his rectangular grid sets off center to dismiss the idea of visual symmetry and play up the notion of space; and this joyously jumpy piece pushes to the lower left. Its dots remain absolutely abstract and rhythmical, often leaping up from just outside the gathered rectangular grid.

Wolyniec includes a set of wall sculptures in “Relief.” These use wire mesh for their loose, organically-contained, rather glandular forms. The structural logic fits his work, particularly because these tend to develop from the inside out. (They’re covered in something like papier-mache and then painted.) Just as his 2-D works exude a sense of time, these visually shift from 3-D to a 4-D sense of time. But while the paintings (or mono-prints – but let’s not get wrapped up in such vague distinctions) all seem to find ultimate relief in tonal resolution, the wall sculptures seem to intentionally fight the notion of resolution, that fundamental end of music. It’s too easy to imagine it’s a new thing for Wolyniec, that he hasn’t yet found a way to fully finish or complete them. But I don’t think so. It’s like he set out to find a way to make whole forms that fight resolution, completion … relief. I find them disturbing, but after a while, I had to conclude that was precisely Wolyniec’s point: “Relief” is resolution, but, in the end, not everything works out.

Courtesy of Wolyniec’s pictures, I left Speedwell with Eric Satie’s gorgeously sleepy “Gymonpedies” softly sailing through my head. The floating piano refrain reminded me about the role of repetition in music and visual art – a quality we claim to so thoroughly disdain in conversation and prose. But in repetition, we find ourselves. We find structure and systems. It’s how we recognize the things, the places and the people we love. To use the musical term, it’s how we know we’re home.

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

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