Second Trance: New wave of Hypnotic art swims and shimmers at Naples Museum of Art
Donald Miller, Special to the Daily News
Published by Naples Daily News: Sunday, April 8, 2001

Ohhhhhh! Here we go again! Readers who recall the eye-zinging era of op art that followed pop art in the 1960s-70s will experience some déjà vu — and perhaps a little mind-swimming feeling — while eyeballing "Post-Hypnotic," the newest exhibition at the Naples Museum of Art.

Op art passed into a deep funk after the early '80s, when masters Victor Vasarely and Bridget Reilly were less on the world art scene and minimalism and conceptualism came to the fore. But the optical style returned in the 1990s in a less prominent way with a brand new set of artists, and their work has been organized into this exhibit by the University Galleries of Illinois State University with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council.

In this show, through May 20, they are as exciting and original as the earlier masters of this painting genre. But they are not as well known, except for Ross Bleckner, who has effectively captured the anxieties associated with AIDS.

Both the new and old optical styles share a common ancestry that is thousands of years old: how repeating patterns can play all sorts of tricks on viewers' eyes and imaginations. These paintings may cause colors to seem to move, merge, change or disappear as well as make forms advance or retreat as one observes each composition. Much planning and experimentation go into achieving these retinal effects.

The skeptical often ask, but isn't this art just a series of effects without rational meaning? Yes and no.

These are pattern paintings of an active kind. They are sometimes freighted with meaning beyond what you see or think you see. Some, like David Szafranski's totally abstract and amusing "Bra Sale," 1998, may contain hidden messages that you try to have appear to you. In this case, the lettering that is sequestered in the work says, "Stop staring." But you may not be able to see this. It is far subtler than a drivers' eye test. (And I didn't see it.) Repeating patterns have always fascinated people and probably always will. They are at the core of decorative art and even, as in flags, national visual identities. They make life richer and are also almost always delightful to experience, painstaking to produce and need no greater reason for being than to exhibit an artist's technical prowess.

Because I interviewed the late Vasarely in his immaculate home east of Paris in 1969, I was interested in an untitled 1989 painting in the show by Peter Schuyff, of the Netherlands and now New York. Schuyff, according to the label for his work, opposes Vasarely's highly systematized art, which Schuyff believes eliminated the personal touch. Schuyff puts that personal element back with a large plaid painting of green and yellow that loosely interweave, show brushstrokes and become blue at the base.

The Schuyff label also states Vasarely's work was out of fashion but is now back in favor with designers and other artists. I recall Vasarely moving grid patterns on top of each other, creating a beautiful moiré effect. These were incorporated in a book he had done. You can see a similar pattern looking through your lanai screen into your neighbor's while moving your head, or moving one window screen over another. It's easier to experience than to paint.

My favorite work in this show is Bruce Pearson's "Wanna Be Happy — Be Happy," in which the artist has carved a large plastic foam block with a hot wire into a repeating pattern with considerable depth and than painted over it in red, yellow, green and blue. This panel also contains distorted letters and perhaps words. But it is beautiful as is, with an overall pattern that is not East Indian, Tibetan or Islamic, but seems as though it could be. The colors vibrate with a fiery intensity and that is enough for me. I really enjoy the dimensional depth, the first work of this kind I have seen. Don't miss it.

Super-cool by comparison, Jason Martin's "Madrina," 1999, is a near-minimalist acrylic purple/silver acrylic gel that Martin placed on a stainless steel surface and then raked horizontally with a large combed tool. The effect of the light bouncing off the furrows made by the tool is exquisite and seems almost machine-made.

Contrast this painting with "Crome," 1992, by Yayoi Kusama, a Tokyo artist now highly regarded by contemporary American art galleries and museums; her piece is an all-over pattern that seems as though the acrylic paint has been printed on metal rather than canvas.

Tad Griffin, of Houston, in "Ecolate 8," 1994," an oil on canvas, has dragged special squeegees across his canvas surface, leaving patterns resembling voiceprints or maybe a blowup of the hundreds of striations on the sides of a fired bullet. Move over, Jackson Pollock.

Griffin states the idea was to "effectively negate the romantic associations of the mark as personal record." But in the process Griffin has created an extremely beautiful pattern in black and white.

The range of visual experiences in this exhibition is quite wide, from Michael Scott's "History of Memory, Part I," 1993, with tightly spaced parallel bands in columns that nearly induce vertigo, to Susie Rosmarin's "Static Study, No. 45," 1990, a small overall grid that seems to flicker with shifting colors that may be only in your mind.

It was a handsome and fitting plan to place Steve di Benedetto's "Scan," 1989, a narrow vertical painting of many differently colored undulating lines suffused with bright yellow, close to Dale Chihuly's "Persian Ceiling" with its colored wall reflections. The two make a strong and glowing transition from one singular art form to another.

Di Benedetto, of New York, seeks to depict "what happens when the codes are jammed, when the logic of the circuit breaks down, resulting in an absurd deformity within the system." Most of us would not have found that extreme condition here. After all, this abstract nonobjective painting interplays repeating lines.

For this fascinating exhibition, that is enough.


Donald Miller, retired art and architecture critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, lives part-time in Naples.