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Joseph Montgomery Five Sets Five Reps

  • Exhibition

  • May 26, 2013 - April 6, 2014
  • Galleries

Joseph Montgomery creates compact abstract assemblages (many measuring only 12 × 10 inches) which have an uncanny familiarity. The small paintings vibrate with texture and movement and bursts of color amidst a mostly subdued and earthy palette. Despite their small size, the works have an intense visual and visceral impact—made from an array of elements which curve up, out, and beyond the confines of the support. Montgomery builds his layered images with a range of materials—a base vocabulary of sorts—including wood, clay, cardboard, fiberglass, paper, and wire. These elements take on the appearance of painterly gesture, each functioning like a brushstroke. The earliest of these works developed from the artist’s attempts to veil or destroy paintings which he found too earnest or too personal. These rejected works become a support for his subsequent collages and are at times cannibalized as material fragments in newer works. Often compared to the collages of Kurt Schwitters, the constructions are indeed influenced by an early twentieth century approach to abstraction exemplified by the likes of Schwitters, Ben Nicholson, and the Constructivists, among others. Though Montgomery is deeply engaged in a discourse with the history and future of painting, his works, like those of his aforementioned predecessors, adapt materials or modes of making associated with building and architecture. Given their size and their materials, the works share characteristics with architectural models. Like such studies, they are images of potential, and seem to move back and forth between different scales, functioning on an intimate level while hinting at the monumental. Small and portable, they also have the air of devotional objects.

Each of Montgomery’s works generates the next, both in concept and material. The original series of painterly assemblages led to a second group of works constructed from the common wooden shims—like those used in both construction and art preparation—which populate some of the collages. The elongated triangles, which Montgomery arranges vertically against a support, and paints in monochrome white and black, have the appearance of both relief and a flat canvas. Channels or troughs between the shims give the illusion that the works may be made of light and dark bands of pigment. Some create the effect of a drawn or painted pattern of lines, akin to those seen in a certain style of geometric abstraction. Playing with notions of figure and ground, the works also upend traditional mark-making, which the artist has purged from his paintings.

This shim series in turn generated a body of much larger wall reliefs constructed from pieces of cardboard. Folded like fans, in tapered patterns that resemble those of the smaller wedges, the works are reminiscent of enlarged fragments. In some, the artist tears away the outer skin of the cardboard to reveal glimpses of the corrugated pattern beneath—before painting them with a layer of white, black, gray, or brown. In more recent works, the artist has added an additional layer of texture by spraying the compound used to make popcorn ceilings like the one in Montgomery’s childhood room. This series brings to mind minimalist monochromes and also hint at the corporeal relationship between viewer and object characteristic of work from the 1960s and 1970s. Hung low to the ground, these pieces have a markedly human scale; the artist compares them to bodies, and the smaller constructions to faces or masks.

The seductive formal and material interest of Montgomery’s works is matched by the ideas that inspire them; that is, the artist’s investigations into the nature of the painting process and the artist’s role as author. Montgomery is concerned with what he calls the “pre-determined” nature of image, and proposes that every image already exists. While the three bodies of work at MASS MoCA seem to mirror recognizable styles of abstraction and may even conjure for viewers the memory of a particular work just out of the mind’s reach, the artist does not intend to consciously track a progression of painting. With no particular original in mind, Montgomery creates what he considers “representations” of other compositions both random and constructed – from paintings to photographs to architecture to visual moments found in the city streets. This bank of images are the result of what he sees as a kind of Darwinism, an evolution in which certain images survive and proliferate.

Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1979, Montgomery earned his BA at Yale University in 2001 and an MFA from Hunter College in 2007. Since receiving his degrees, the artist’s work has been presented in Basel, Switzerland, Antwerp, and Milan. In February 2013 his work will be featured in Painter, Painter at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Montgomery currently lives and works in New York.

Image One Hundred Forty Seven, 2011-2012
Oil, pastel, clay, lacquer, resin, sponge, paper, canvas, wax, and steel wire on plastic panel
12 3/4 × 10 1/8 × 5 1/4 inches
Courtesy the artist and Laurel Gitlen, New York