Reality feels fluid in Benjamin Schmitt’s ‘Celestial Abstractions’

“Ebb and Flow,” part of Celestial Abstractions.
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Dawn-Michelle Baude

Three stars

Benjamin Schmitt: Celestial Abstractions Through January 27; Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Priscilla Fowler Fine Art 1025 S. Main St. #155, 719-371-5640.

At a time when contemporary art is suspicious of cosmic grandeur, Benjamin Schmitt’s exhibition, Celestial Abstractions, promises a lot. References to the heavens, let alone the divine, are hard to pull off in our aggressively cynical age. And yet, there’s something “celestial” and otherworldly in the 13 paintings on display at Priscilla Fowler Fine Art. Deploying organic forms in an ambiguous, flattened perspective, Celestial Abstractions pings both Asian traditions and midcentury psychedelic art. At their best, Schmitt’s paintings allude to the enigmatic building blocks of life.

“Ebb and Flow” (2017), a 9-by-3-foot triptych, steals the show. The fluid organic patterns spreading from one square canvas to the next recall Hokusai’s sea foam in the iconic print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Like traditional Asian artists, Schmitt eschews light and shadow, as well as linear perspective, composing his artwork with contrasting lines in a flattened picture plane. The fluid subject matter seems to be abstracted from a liquidy source, perhaps a photograph of oil slicking a rain puddle or the promiscuous antics transpiring in a petri dish. Because there’s no fixed viewpoint, the eye flits from one hardedge shape to the next, as if encountering a panoramic view without a central landmark.

Another successful work, “Pink Floe” (2016), exhibits a similar flattened perspective and restricted blue/white/red palette, but the delicate, amorphous subject matter is scaled up. The fleshy pink and red figure, apparently a detail of a cropped form, vividly contrasts with the icy-blue ground, almost as if it were an infrared zoom of frigid Nordic waterways or an amoeba in heat. With its rounded picture plane, “Colonies” (2016) takes a slightly different tack: The small format painting seemingly portrays the biologic activity caught in a raindrop or beneath a telescopic eye—wormy, blobby and bursting with activity. Like other Schmitt works, the hardedge forms in “Colony” suggest movement thorough shape and contrast, almost to the point that they’re ready to crawl.

Pieces such as “Moth Etc” (2016) and “Blue Ribbons” (2016) are less convincing—due, in part, to a lack of functional negative space. In these paintings, the white ground doesn’t read as negative, so it doesn’t recede into the picture plane. The result is a kind of visual incongruity that deprives the composition of dimension. Coupled with simplified, often symmetrical shapes, these works seem largely decorative; in another case, overwrought. That said, Celestial Abstractions well repays a visit, particularly for those otherworldly paintings jiggling with life.

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