Abington Art Center
Though July 27, 2014
By Jacob Feige
Will DiBello’s five large canvases and three works on paper are as striking for their context at the Abington Art Center as they are for their own gestural immediacy and vibrating chroma. Eccentric woodwork surrounds DiBello’s vigorous abstractions, the gallery itself a room in the former Alverthorpe Manor, a mid-twentieth-century mansion that was donated to the town of Abington for use as a cultural center in 1969. Far removed (culturally and geographically) from the white cubes that have become the norm in gallery architecture, artists must contend with the peculiarities of curving oak wheelchair ramps and pyramidal crown molding as they lay out work in the space. DiBello’s Are ‘Friends’ Electric? 2 (Black) hangs directly over a dark gray marble fireplace, the painting’s scale humorously-but-purposefully dominating the arrangement, if only by a slim margin. Nearby rooms at Abington, currently featuring solo exhibitions by Gerard Brown and Florence Moonan, each have their own architectural eccentricities, including irregular tile floors and plaster walls streaked with silver.
DiBello’s paintings have an outsized presence on many walls, their vivid colors and large scale slightly restrained by the space. Still, the room buzzes with energy and contrast. Half the works drape from the walls without frames or supports, giving the installation an informal air. With all the paintings dated 2014, the exhibition documents a series of experiments with abstraction, perhaps rooted in printmaking, marking a transitional moment for the artist. Much of DiBello’s past output has been rooted in the hard-edged pop of corporate logos, becoming increasingly abstracted and pattern-focused in recent years. The work at Abington has broken almost entirely with these pop references, which lingered in his work, however abstractly, until last year. The three works on paper, Screen #1, Screen #2, and Screen #3 suggest an Op approach to tight plaids and checks, equal parts fabric design and tribute to Bridget Riley. Canvases are productively playful and less disciplined. In a series of three Art ‘Friends’ Electric? paintings, wide, loose scribbles with a paintbrush yield a surprising sense of depth and movement. The large scale of the paintings is in pleasing contrast to the feeling that one is looking through a microscope at some sort of wiggly microbes. Art ‘Friends’ Electric? 3 (C+Y+M) pays tribute to DiBello’s work as a printmaker, with the process colors cyan, yellow, and magenta overlaid to suggest a far wider range of hues.
The boldest departure from DiBello’s previous bodies of work comes in CSS and Revision, two nine-by-seven foot canvases flopped from the top of the walls and painted with black and white acrylic. In each, a black pattern somewhere between the primitivism of A.R. Penck and the calligraphic abstraction of Mark Tobey has been laid over the surface. In the latter, haphazard white streaks, perhaps applied with a roller, mostly obscure the pattern, suggesting irreverence for the artist’s own process.
While these two works are formally and materially DiBello’s most daring, they are also the most familiar, seen in light of recent trends in abstract painting that have been unkindly termed “zombie formalism” by critics Walter Robinson and Jerry Saltz. Work that is clearly informed by such abstract painting, but which is so far removed from the commerce of the art fair that fuels demand for it, sits in an unsettled, parallel world of art production, taking on similar form but working with a different set of intentions. That is not to say that DiBello explicitly rejects the commerce of art; his work simply sits outside of it in this location. Should there be a less cynical reception for such work if the artist can’t be accused of making it to assimilate her/himself into the art fair economy? I am cautiously receptive to DiBello pursuing this new line in his work, even though it is leading him somewhat paradoxically to an approach that could be judged as conformist in another context. It is clearly the product of genuine play and experimentation, seen in light of his practice broadly. One artist’s calculated gesture of cultural sameness can look nearly identical to another artist’s risky investigation. Artists develop their own frameworks and narratives, and these often misalign with broader cultural narratives, as is the case for DiBello. But at the Abington Art Center, I wonder how many visitors would notice these subtle distinctions. Here the work may be more interesting without such baggage, free to be lively color and form in a distinctive space.
Jacob Feige is an artist and Assistant Professor of Art at the Richard Stockton College of NJ.