There is a musicality to Johnny Abrahams compositions. He has a particular rhythm or maybe a phrasing or specific cadence, but the work is unmistakably melodic. They pull off a clever sleight of hand that sets the viewer up with a theme and then variation, both comforting and somewhat dissonant; familiar yet wholly unexpected. These paintings have a mysterious power that is difficult to locate, but i would like to suggest that the source might stem somewhere in the variations from what we, the viewers, have been set up to expect.
The best way for me to organise my thoughts on this work is to make a series of analogies to various modes of musical composition. A surprising amount reductive artists have a strong understanding of musical structure and have at some point, in some way, studied musical composition. Something about the order and boundaries, and the deliberate and willful variation/deviation of these boundaries provides a suitable framework for certain types of abstraction. One example that comes to mind is Charles W. Haxthausen's essay The Well-Tempered Grid: On Sol Lewitt and Music. Examining Lewitt's use of the grid as a guiding structure in light of his interest in Bach's composition, Haxthausen concludes the essay by observing,
'It is in this sense that LeWitt's grid may be said to be 'well-tempered,' the term applied to Andreas Werckmeister's division of the octave into twelve equal semitones in 1681, the tuning system on which Bach based his two books of twenty-four preludes and fugues. And as LeWitt moved from the Drawing Series to other ideas... the grid remained the organising principle for his art of serial variation. It became a means of ordering the inchoate messiness of reality'
The idea that art as a reality organising activity is based on fundamental structures (a predetermined set of intervals or a plane of criss crossing lines) is compelling to me. As I was organising my thoughts on Johnny Abraham's new work, I was struck by the way these paintings, literally and metaphorically, both reference and avoid both these structures.
Deceptively simple, Abrahams presents a unique lexicon of shapes, the haphazard texture from a palette knife, sparse but distinct colour, and the negative space of raw canvas. These are his only elements, but it would be a mistake to consider them in isolation instead of seeing their relationships. By this I mean, instead of hearing the individual notes, it is more rewarding to hear the interval jumps between the notes. To think of notes, either by name, symbol, or sound is an intellectual pursuit rooted in specifics. G major scale has one sharp and it's always F sharp. Intervals work differently. A major scale is a whole step whole step half step, whole step whole step whole step half step. It's always a relative relationship. Instead of anchoring the world to a known order it undermines structure by saying 'start anywhere, it doesn't matter. These relationships are dependent on nothing.'
Johnnys lexicon of shapes works in a similar way. Hinting at a never realised pattern. The shapes, for instance, first appear stacked, usually horizontally in a way that makes it feel like gravity has somehow shifted ninety degrees. Similar elements repeat but with no discernible pattern, only in assorted combinations . The real interest comes in the moment of connection, where the shapes touch, another wink towards an unrealised pattern since no structure or logic to the points of contact is immediately apparent.
Comparisons of reductive art to minimalist music might seem cliche, but I'm going to risk banality by suggesting a parallel to Steve Reich's phase music. It's as if the composition were some sort of snapshot taken in the middle of a phased melody with the listener unsure if the two parts have just started echoing, have moved far enough to double each other, descended into chaotic ringing, or are headed back almost toward unison. The composition of each painting seems to be a snippet of a pattern the viewer, and possibly the artist themself, has no access to.
Like the comparison to minimalism in music, another pitfall of writing about this sort of art is the overuse of the word 'subtle'. I am going to use that word here but I will try to make amends by being as specific as possible with my usage. I would like to suggest that Johnny's variations are experienced in the way microtones are experiences by those of us mostly comfortable with a twelve tone scale. These shapes seem familiar but just slightly askew and just a little closer than we might have placed them. But it is this particular moment of subtly where the tension and drama are created in Abrahams paintings.
His cramped compositional tension is expanded by the most recent use of colour. The latest paintings are slightly askew tones placed side by side so that the use of colour and shape reflect and reenforce each others subtlety. That is to say the colours are as close to one another on the spectrum as the shapes are to each other in the composition, which demonstrates how Abrahmas has created a scale with its own intervals through which he composes.
Unlike LeWitt, his composition seem less a way of ordering reality than a way of simply drawing attention to it. Which brings us to the other abused descriptor in writings about art: meditative. LeWitt is an artist who invites us to wade into the world of ideas. This type of making and this type of thinking needs a concrete structure to build on. It needs a grid. Johnny's work is meant to be experienced more than it is meant to be discussed. This is why it's difficult to write about and why my writing has leaned heavily on analogies. The work invites meditation, but not a passive meditation with the goal of calming and soothing the viewer into complacency. It's an active meditation that challenges the viewer to question the social construction of categories and borders. It tears grids apart.
Press release courtesy Choi&Lager Gallery. Text: Stephen Somple