In the age of new media and flashy VR experiences, the basic tradition of brush to canvas is viewed by some as an old art form worthy of dismissal. After all, how many paintings make for a great selfie opportunity? More and more museums, it seems, are hopping on the fun, interactive and blinky installation bandwagon to keep their young viewers interested and ticket sales up. If it’s not projected at monumental scale, image mapped, or rotating on a metallic ball no one seems be interested these days. What happened to engulfing yourself in talent rather than environment? With all of this taken into account, it’s refreshing to happen upon a show of pure painting that sparks anew that inner fire for the hallowed art of painting. Jonathan Ryan Storms new exhibition, PROPER HEADSHRINKER, at David Shelton Gallery, did just that and more.
PROPER HEADSHRINKER features new paintings by Vermont-based and one-time Houston resident Jonathan Ryan Storm in his second solo exhibition with the gallery. The beautifully executed and lushly colored paintings are reminiscent of the color field painters of the ’60s and ’70s. In 1964, Clement Greenberg acknowledged a new movement of painting which derived from abstract expressionism of the ’40s and ’50s but “favored openness or clarity” as opposed to the dense painterly surfaces of that era. The movement was known as Post-Painterly Abstraction, and to me, Storm has nailed it. If it was his intention — I’m sure it wasn’t, however — his hat tipping to such artist as Morris Louis, Frank Stella, and Franz Kline is relevant in his paintings within the exhibition.
Storm’s works in the show range from very small to quite large, and yet size doesn’t seem to affect his ability for composition and gravity. His attention to detail is outstanding, and yet there is a looseness to his brush work — playfulness of the brush, if you will. A series of small works on canvas that are part of the exhibition drew me in almost immediately. Clustered together in a collection of seven canvases, these 10-inch works give a broad view of his abilities in the studio. At first they read almost as experiments or doodles, but with closer inspection there is a lot happening within each one of them. Unlike his larger works that anchor the show, these little works offer a timeline or story of his practice. See Say Saw is extremely minimal, with just two or three thin red brushstrokes across a stark white canvas, whereas The Motherland is a delightful checkerboard of colored squares placed upon the canvas in a clunky but deliberate fashion. They are sometimes muted or dull in color, but Storm is able to make each one of them sing. The small paintings are an engaging grouping, and I found myself returning to them often to catch more hidden details.
The prize paintings of the exhibition are from a newer series of his under his process known as “taking a walk” and “inner space.” The “taking a walk” paintings respond to the process of action and reaction that begins on the outer edges of the canvas working towards the center; each line reflects the one that preceded it. The painting is finished when it ends in the center, the end of the walk. The “inner space” paintings involve mirrored methods that originate from the center like solar flares. Storm uses these methods to create a bit of controlled chaos in his work while still maintaining a meditative quality. It was entertaining to try and figure out which paintings were reflecting which method and then trying to figure out Storm’s path of creation.
Clepsydra, representing the “taking a walk” method, was an intricate journey for the eyes. Using an oil stick on canvas, Storm creates a labyrinth of blue and grey-ish blocks and lines that draws the viewer deeper into the work. Well planned and well played, the placement of color and spacing is commendable. Small bits of reds and yellows peek out from behind the maze of blue, igniting various sections of the canvas. Upon entering into the gallery, this painting and several of its style appeared to be rather basic, one color dominating in each work. It is up to the viewer to engage the works and unlock what is actually going on with each piece, and I really enjoyed that.
The devil is in the details, as it is said, and very well represented in this exhibition is Storm’s walking series. What Armageddon was one of my favorites, and I found myself spending a lot of time with it. Its bold colors and lush brushwork made for a rewarding experience. Since this work is of Storm’s “inner space” method, it is widely expressionistic and yet anchored in stillness. The application of the paint appears to weigh tons, but the gesture of the brush is delicate. Red, blue, yellow and orange tentacles sprout from the center and explode off of the black background. Its bold elementary colors are quite reminiscent of many of the works by Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman and Sam Francis, and there is magic in its simplicity that I find rewarding.
Storm doesn’t overwork his ideas with gimmicks and flash: He sticks to the traditions, and he has mastered his talent to let the paintings speak for themselves. There are several pieces within the show that are not “paintings” per say, such as a few works of paper on canvas and two very interesting works of patterned fabric on canvas, but they hold their own. While branching from his very traditional style, they pay homage to the rest of the pieces in the show and again require time to be spent with them.
David Shelton has a great eye for talent within his programming and maintains solid curation with diversity within the works and artists he represents. Certainly this is apparent with Jonathan Ryan Storm’s PROPER HEADSHRINKER. It’s great to see such talent presented, talent which requires no fancy bells or whistles when you are well-endowed with the brush.
PROPER HEADSHRINKER is on view at David Shelton Gallery through Feb. 10.