The Formal Behind the Surreal: “Abstract Alternatives,” Jeff Mihalyo, Dendroica Gallery, April 14 to May 8, 2016
Seattle-based artist Jeff Mihalyo has built an international reputation on his mesmerizing, large-scale narrative artworks depicting surreal architectures and fantasy worlds in brilliant oil colors. This versatile creator has also experimented with cast-paint objects, and his video installations, in which his famously luxuriant beard looms large, are eminently memorable.
However, it is a very different aspect of his talent that comes to the forefront in his latest show at Dendroica Gallery in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. In “Abstract Alternatives,” Mihalyo highlights not his gift for evocative narrative nor even his distinctively Technicolor palette, but a delight in form, line, and tone. Here, the master lays bare his visual obsessions in stark black and white.
Now, art enthusiasts eager to discover Mihalyo’s work might not want to begin with this show. Whereas his best-known canvases occupy huge expanses of gallery wall, most of the drawings in the show are small. One of the most impressive and intricately wrought sketches in the show—the poetically named, “Worm Guts”—measures only 12.5” by 9.5”. Mihalyo’s oil paintings usually portray dreamlike scenes in jewel-like tones, but the artist has rendered all the pieces in “Abstract Alternatives” in graphite on paper: fully polished versions of studies from his own sketchbooks. But what sketchbooks!
For those familiar with Mihalyo’s artistic vision, this exhibition offers great insight into the craft and skill seamlessly integrated and perhaps even underappreciated in Mihalyo’s more familiar works. In pieces such as “Worm Guts,” “Peanut Roses,” and “Two Cubes,” the artist lavishes attention on natural designs such as fractals, spirals, textures, and the intricate geometries of rock fractures—all patterns that appear throughout his art and lend an underlying impression of realism to the most dreamlike of tableaux.
Echoes of the narrative elements in his other art also appear in the exhibition. Some drawings convey the eerie sense of weightlessness common in Mihalyo’s paintings and reminiscent of Surrealist masterpieces such as René Magritte’s “The Castle of the Pyrenees.” “Two Cubes,” which naturally enough depicts two stone cubes, tilted like square diamonds towards the viewer with the outlines delicately blurring to imply distance, float in blank, white space. Yet, the meticulousness with which the artist has rendered the lattice of cracks in the rock and the care with which he shades the edges cultivates an illusion of materiality. One powerful aspect of Mihalyo’s visual storytelling, the hyper-realistic effects of lighting and distortion of distance that convey a vivid sense of place, figure very clearly in this same sketch.
In other drawings, the suggestion of narrative and of place gives way to the pleasure of abstraction. “Two Suns,” for example, seems less a representation of two cosmic bodies than an exuberant exercise in positive and negative space. The sharpness of bold black lines dividing yet joining the suns contrasts with the smoothness of the shaded areas, which engulf other spots of starkly outlined negative space. Viewers can perhaps appreciate the artist’s mastery of technique and control over his medium in such sketches all the more clearly than in his paintings.
In still other artworks in this exhibition, Mihalyo does communicate narrative more explicitly, but they come across as visual poems in contrast to the lavishly developed, “novelistic” detail of his oil paintings, which often portray distinct animal or human figures in settings inspired by Asian or Venetian architectures. In “Ghost Arena,” for example, the arrangement of starkly outlined human-like shapes—negative spaces rather than true figurative renderings—suggests the movement of specters through the air, within an implied edifice that fades in in the background. The very vagueness of the drawing, devoid of specific cultural markers or even of features in the spirit shapes, accentuates the emotional impact of the implicit tale. Forgive the pun, but the image becomes all the more haunting.
In “Abstract Alternatives,” Jeff Mihalyo offers a fascinating glimpse into the formal considerations that underlie his oeuvre. Thus, these drawings do not represent a detour into formalism, a flirtation with Cubism, or the sudden influence of abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky so much as a distillation of functions very much present throughout his art as a whole.
“Abstract Alternatives” remains on display at Dendroica Gallery through Sunday, May 8, 2016.