Martha Tuttle and Henry Chapman have long shared a poetic appreciation of painting and a fondness for geometric abstraction, in particular that of Agnes Martin’s canvases. The two artists—who were colleagues in graduate school at Yale University and subsequently studio mates in Queens but now live on opposite coasts (Chapman in Berkeley, California, and Tuttle in New York)—were reunited at Rhona Hoffman this past summer. The exhibition showcased their intense personal dialogue by examining a group of 2017 paintings that favor order and the formalist principles of wholes and repetition over fragmentation, discontinuity, and dissonance. Foremost comprising patterns, shapes, and arrangements, these works collectively strove to stabilize material differences and establish well-wrought unity, while individual paintings simultaneously conveyed restraint and singular invention.
Congruously installed on the wall of the main room, and framed by the gallery’s wooden support pillars, were two of Tuttle’s layered fabric works: the ocher-hued Weather (7) on the left, and the cool-toned Weather (5) on the right. Each composition consisted of variously sized rectangular pieces of dyed wool and silk fabric fixed together by a seam along the top edge. The spaces created between loosely hanging translucent pieces resulted in shifting levels of opacity, which in turn altered color values. Small steel clips—made using a lost-wax casting technique—grasped at three edges, acting as weights that smoothed out rumples in the fabric. These hard reflective ornaments introduced a physical variance antithetical to the yielding weave of wool and silk. Arranged to reinforce tactile, spatial, and geometric hybridity, Tuttle’s three loose textile paintings—which also included the brown monochrome Weather (6) installed on the wall closest to the gallery’s entrance—were unbound counterpoints to her series of six smaller framed contributions (collectively titled “Like water I have no skin”), also formed of wool, silk, and dye. Hand-spun and handwoven, pale opaque fields of wool occupied nearly half of each painting’s composition. In each case, too, the other half of the painting was pieced in with irregularly dyed transparent silk. Through the silk the viewer could see the painting’s wooden stretchers and the space between the taut skin of the natural fibers and the smooth surface of the gallery wall. The fifth work in the series was anomalous—it hosted a section of clay-encrusted wool—while the first included a section of dark-gray wool and a layered segment of silk. The seams where the wool and the silk abutted were never straight, contoured instead by the tension of material stretched around the wooden frame. There was a feeling of composure in these small pieces, similar to the controlled feeling of tucking a blouse into the elastic waistband of nylons or that of tucking in bedsheets tightly.
The material tension evidenced in Tuttle’s paintings was in marked contrast to the wispy visual vocabulary dispersed across Chapman’s large gesso-ground canvases. As Tuttle’s paintings channeled quilts and garments, Chapman’s paintings evoked manuscripts: Screen-printed passages of texts and pictographs, densely pigmented oil stains, incised lines, and delicate dabs of paint scantly populated the broad white surfaces, which possessed the rough look of a deckle edge. The distribution of text riffed on the visual and topographical devices used in concrete poetry, while gestural marks and paint stains suggested the edits and drafts of a document. Cimarron distributed a small collection of phrases and nouns—e.g. GHOST RANCH; TROUTMAN STREET STUDIO, RIDGEWOOD; AGNES MARTIN AT LACMA—all in a lowercase serif typeface and sprinkled among a few gestural black smudges. Although the text in Chapman’s paintings was fragmentary, the patterns of notations were carefully synchronized within a prescribed and familiar field of whiteness, echoing the simple yet sophisticated arrangement of shapes in Tuttle’s fabric works. In different ways, then, both Tuttle and Chapman made a case for rigorous attentiveness to the interactions among forms, amplifying painting’s ability to order and unify while affording material and poetical explorations within their individual practices.