Slate Contemporary Goes Olde Moderne

A trio of artists showing at Slate Contemporary under the title California Modern proves once again that painting is vital and relevant even if one fetishizes Eichler houses, vinyl LPs, and Herb Caen’s dainty white gloves.


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California Modern includes Mikey Kelly's 16.141.

Courtesy Slate Contemporary

The 1950s are now seen as a golden age of American prosperity and dominance. It’s partly due to GOP myth-mongering about When People Knew Their Place and partly based in fact, since America did bestride the world like a colossus after World War II — its new middle class created by the progressive programs of the New Deal.

This cultural nostalgia extends to the sleek modernist design of the Mad-Men era; in our anything-goes, politically-correct postmodernist era, abstract paintings on canvas, made by hand, once derided as obsolete, now look refreshingly sincere: tokens of a kinder, gentler, simpler time.

Of course the Cold War was no picnic, but good painting is forever, as Picasso said. A trio of artists showing at Slate Contemporary under the title California Modern proves once again that painting is vital and relevant even if one fetishizes Eichler houses, vinyl LPs, and Herb Caen’s dainty white gloves. All three artists — Sheldon Greenberg, Maya Kabat, and Mikey Kelly — are established mid-career abstractionists (though Greenberg also, despite his surname in common with flatter-is-better critic Clement Greenberg, paints representationally as well). All employ a strict abstract vocabulary of straight edges and/or colored planes, reminiscent of modernist architecture, and reinvigorate “pure” abstraction through sheer commitment and intensity.

Greenberg’s paintings are the most “realistic,” since they represent views of architectural interiors, simplified, with sumptuously colored planes tilted into perspectival walls, screens, windows, walkways, and balustrades. Devotees of Richard Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith will feel right at home perusing View from the Deck and When the Sun is Out and the Pool is Warm. Kabat’s colored planes (made with a drywall knife) have broken from the strict rectangle into irregular, shaped canvases, generally rectangular, but modified with with notches and tabs: Utah, not Colorado. If the shapes of her Super Spatial series derive from the collages of synthetic cubism, and perhaps, transposed into oil, the abstractions of Nicolas de Stael, her palette, which might be described as tropical (or Southern Californian) suggests an inspiration in landscape, refracted by memory. Kelly’s colored ink drawings, shown in the gallery hallway, are overlays of linear meshes, creating moiré-patterned spaces that are impossible to “enter” visually, yet ingeniously mesmerizing: Op Art cat’s cradles.

California Modern runs through June 29, Slate Contemporary, 473 25th St., Oakland, 510-652-4085, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 12-5 p.m. Sat., SlateArt.net.

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly

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