Graphite on Paper, the two-person show at James Kelly Contemporary, delivers on its promise, though the ratio of paper-to-graphite is strikingly disproportionate. The artists, Susan York and Wes Mills, each employ a restrained approach to mark making, but the similarities end there. Whereas York’s black blocks possess striking visual weight, Mills’ scratches and cloudy smears are so delicate they disappear at a distance of more than a few feet.
Strictly speaking, York is a minimalist, adhering to the lofty ideals of the ’60s movement, while Mills would be thrown right out of the movement’s lodge meetings for his heretical use of text and handmade lines. Nevertheless, there is no better word than minimalism to describe his scant marks, so renowned blockhead Donald Judd will just have to make room.
As someone who never shuts up, I’m fascinated by minimalist art. Confronted by an austere object with little or no variation in tone or temperament, I can only stare and wonder what happened to the artist as a child to make him or her want to do this. Whatever the reason, the lack of self-expression always makes me think of minimalists as far more unhinged than rowdy ab-ex painters or drug-addled conceptualists.
This thinking, of course, misses the point. By considering the artist, I fail to engage in the work as an autonomous object. So be it. There is a psychology inextricably tied to the creation of any artwork that is foregrounded in the absence of subject matter. By suppressing expression, the minimalist reveals left-brained tendencies of control and logic. If all art is therapy, minimalism appears to be a laborious battle to demonstrate self-possession.
In York’s case, I’d say she’s winning. Her densely hewn drawings of solitary rectilinear forms reveal a machine-like acuity. The surface of each form appears polished, producing a monochrome that is beautifully textured and even. The shapes would look severe and weighty if not for a neat trick York plays—just beyond their natural edges, she creates a faint, cloudy rim that quickly evaporates into white. From a distance, the blocks appear to hover, unattached to their spacious, blank supports like Stanley Kubrick’s monolith. This sets off a number of nice visual paradoxes regarding subject and background. Not to mention it further evidences York’s ability as a draftsperson, the lightness of the halos matching the heft of the headstones. My only complaint concerns the asymmetrical arrangement of the forms within their frames. I know from previous exhibits this is an attempt to mirror the arrangement of companion sculptures, but the gesture is undercut by the frames’ adherence to 60-inch sight lines.
Above all, minimalism’s rigidity hints at a set of unshakable convictions in its proponents. This is not always the case. In the adjacent room, Mills appears to struggle. If York’s work represents a commitment, Mills’ represents another brand of minimalism: uncertainty.
Viewing Mills’ drawings, it is difficult to fathom how he determines when they are completed, since they look like he has barely begun. Without the aid of titles or a statement, I was left to piece together broken lines or a faint miasma emitting from a tiny spot. I pictured an artist paralyzed by indecision, to whom the act of drawing constitutes a violation of the otherwise pure surface of the page.
I’m not trying to belittle Mills, but it is difficult to hear what he’s saying when his works are little more than whispers. Some of the marks he makes are lovely, but I was unable to access his thought process to determine whether he was executing it. In one of the works, a single smear of white paint interrupts the lower corner of the page. Within the confines of the smear, the artist drew a faint upward arc. Looking around the room at all the blankness, all the possibilities for marks that weren’t made, I found myself hoping the arc was a smile.