Jason Middlebrook: “The Small Spaces In Between” at Gallery 16

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The California-born artist Jason Middlebrook, now living in upstate New York, returns to the West Coast after major shows at MASS MoCA and SITE Santa Fe with an impressive show of abstract paintings on wood, titled “The Small Spaces In Between.” The title might refer to his cheerful horror vacui covering of irregularly shaped hardwood boards (selected from a Massachusetts mill) with intricate geometric designs. But it’s also the name of one of the pieces; Middlebrooks’ oddball sense of humor is reflected not only in the interplay of wood grain, plank shape, and his beautifully absurdist paint “skins,” once characterized as “riotous,” but in his playful titles: e.g., Nature Doesn’t Stay in the Lines (2016), The Layer Between Us (2015), and The Small Spaces In Between (the Many Colors of Poison Ivy) (2016). Middlebrook addresses the “collision between man and nature,” a trope usually treated with glum, heavy-handed political correctness and makes the synthesis of opposites a joyous, radiant melding of complementaries-a sly collusion, rather, from an artist interested in ecology, recycling and entropy-and the imagined fate of art objects in a post-anthropic era.

On display are a dozen of Middlebrook’s 10 year-old Plank series, nine or 10-foot tall cuts of maple, walnut, cherry, cypress and curly maple that have been roughly shaped and smoothed, but not reduced to geometric regularity. With their intricate skeins of ornamentation, they resemble floor runners, slightly twisted or askew, and standing up from the floor, leaned against the wall, or psychedelic rashers of bacon, or Carl Andre’s minimalist wooden “cuts in space” with the patterning that suggestive of a meeting of Op and aboriginal minds. They’re impressive, all right, and hilarious, but to my eye and taste, a bit too large: stand back to take in the organic whole, or gestalt, and the geometric structure disappears. Duck or bunny, but not both; or is that the point? More gemutlich and domestic-feeling are the 10 modestly-sized wall-mounted reliefs of the newer Cross Section pieces, measuring 2-by-3 feet, approximately, where the interplay between the rounded, “geological” shapes of the burls and their faux-architectural embellishment creates inviting, aesthetic island paradises. Get away now.

Blue Threaded Volume
2016
Jason Middlebrook
Acrylic on walnut
104″ x 20″ x 1 1⁄2″
Photo: courtesy Gallery 16