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Gisela Colón: Order and spirit

Artistic “originality” is not only the result of innovation – if it results from innovation at all. The features that distinguish an oeuvre normally result not from doing something nobody else has ever done, but from doing what so many other artists have done – and bringing together what they have done in an entirely unanticipated manner. Originality is the marriage of personal insight to stylistic synthesis, artistic DNA inherited and recombined through a combination of vision, skill, good fortune and will. An “original” body of work is far more than the sum of its parts – even as it has many parts.

In this light the art of Gisela Colón manifests an especially curious and telling hybrid. The work of a painter born in Canada, raised in Puerto Rico, and resident in Los Angeles for the latter half of her life, Colón draws upon her Latin roots, her California environment, and her awareness of European and American – South and North American – artistic forerunners to forge an emphatically distinctive style, one that evinces its heritage in all of these sources but provides a whole other visual experience. The paintings Colón has produced over the last several years have culminated in a body of work that betrays myriad artistic sources and models and yet can be mistaken for none of them, even as it can compare with the best of them. Colón herself admits to, even speaks excitedly about, those sources, referring to them as examples to which she has striven, distant masters to whom she has apprenticed in her own studio. Painting for Colón is, among other things, a form of ancestor worship. But she honors her artistic predecessors, and her cultural roots, not through imitation, but through conflation, through the bringing together of the spirits she has found and that have found her.

Colón identifies most strongly with the art and architecture of mid-20th-century Western civilization, and her works evinces a dialectical resolution of the forces that determined in particular the abstract painting of that era. Colón’s painting embraces and elides the disparity between geometric and gestural abstraction, fusing the spirit and texture of one with the line and composition of the other to achieve an ordered sensuality, a passion whose allure is heightened by its rhythmic precision. Another dialectic that reaches synthesis in Colón’s work is that opposing “northern” culture with “southern,” that is, the heretofore dominant culture(s) of Europe with the once subjected culture(s) of sub-equatorial peoples, specifically in her case those of Latin America. Indeed, the art of Latin America in modern times, from Rivera to Torres-Garcia, can itself be measured in attempts to resolve this dichotomy, to harness the twin engines of colonial and colonized peoples to a single aesthetic, if not ethos; and Colón must be seen as a natural inheritor of artists as diverse as Wifredo Lam, Gunther Gerszo, Jesus Raphael Soto, Rufino Tamayo, and the Madí artists of postwar Argentina.

The artists cited here are all associated with abstract tendencies, from cubism to Op art. Even the most figural (Tamayo, Lam) rely on stylization, formalized line, and a dynamic palette at least as much as on imagery per se. Colón, quite consciously, associates with and studies abstraction – with a particular emphasis on geometric formal languages. The painterliness of Colón’s work would seem to bespeak a connection to more gestural styles – abstract expressionism, tachisme – but in fact even a cursory examination of her work reveals a powerful, and basic, sense of structure. Her art, by her own admission, is “earthy and sensual,” but is also rigorous and ordered – a dialectical distinction that she proudly identifies as distinctive to Latin American art, and also finds in the work of certain mid-century Euro-American painters, artists such as Mark Rothko in New York and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva in Paris who merged the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in their own syntheses.

For the last several years, Colón has consistently employed a particular armature as the fundament of her painting. She refers to it as a “grid,” and its basic unit is indeed a more or less rectangular form repeated across the expanse of the painting. But this is not the precisely inscribed box upon which the minimalists of the 1960s (whom Colón also admires) built their edifices. Its effect is similar, at once inviting almost mantric contemplation and proposing an architectural comprehension of form. But compared to the uninflected, self-effacing alignments of Agnes Martin or Carl Andre, Colón’s grids are irregular, brittle, almost organic. They pile on one another like paving stones, even oozing “mortar” where their rough edges meet. (That binding material is itself raw and lustrous, as if Colón were affixing her bricks to one another with molten gold.) They are invariably luminous, whether mashed coarsely to the supporting surface, as in the earlier work in this extended series, or sealed beneath a glistening skin of resin, as in the more recent paintings.

Over the course of this long sequence, Colón has magnified and lightened this luminous quality, increasingly allowing her forms to dissolve into it. This is a quality particular to “light-and-space” artists prominent in southern California, artists such as Robert Irwin and Larry Bell whom Colón has admired since moving to Los Angeles twenty years ago. But, despite the quality of disembodiment notable in light-and-space artwork, Colón’s forms have lost none of their implicit tactility. If anything, her compositions focus more and more on the presence of something, however mysterious and indescribable that something may be. Her earlier paintings, rusty and glowering, confront the viewer with stuttering fields of rich, loamy brown, sulfurous yellow, or intense, almost bloody red. By contrast, the more recent work, in particular the “Kinetic Light” series, move from more delicate versions of this earthy, alchemical palette to a range of whites and blues that, rather than evoking the ground, gaze up into the sky, or perhaps out to sea.

More importantly, the “Kinetic Light” series and the paintings leading up to it present us not with broad, essentially unvariegated panels of light and color, as their predecessors do, but with shapes impressed on or into contrasting fields. Colón has abandoned an “all-over” compositional strategy for the more traditional, but arguably more complex, formula of figure-ground. She no longer simply “builds” surfaces out of hand-wrought grid elements, but constructs surprisingly intricate relationships between objects and spaces. The “objects” seem at once to emerge from and to sink into the voids surrounding them. Both figures and grounds, after all, are still built up of, or shiver into, Colón’s spiky fractions; those fundamental elements may cluster more intensely in the figures, but they cover the entire picture plane – every picture plane – with their rhythmic faceting.

The “Kinetic Light” paintings, even more than her earlier work, convey a ferocious but tenuous sense of order and clarity. The faceted grid elements, after all, read as building blocks from one angle, but from another can seem to appear as the pieces into which already extant shapes and atmospheres distort and dissolve. Colón’s method and imagery are dynamic enough to allow for coalition or dissolution – or both at once, if we can understand them as functioning on a molecular, even atomic level at which stasis is inconceivable. The imagery may be coherent, but it is, quite deliberately, not stable. Colón has discussed “the idea that the intellectual basis of geometric abstract art (at least in Latin America -- and specifically in my childhood experience in Caribbean Latin America) stems from a need for order, precision, symmetry in response to the environmental instability, chaos, and tumultuous existence of everyday life.” But even as Colón achieves this order, precision, symmetry, it refuses to behave – it refuses to be merely ordered, precise, and symmetric, but throbs with an opulent vivacity.

Colón’s approach, then, is a “painterly geometry” – not simply the realization of composition through the use of soft-edged grids, but the determination of ordered, reasoned form with inarguably manual, organic gestures. As opposed to the Modernist ideal of a geometric art rendered by machines, Colón’s is a geometric art rendered quite obviously by a human. The impetus for the work is rational, but the manufacture of the work is inflected with character – not with vulnerability, but with mutability, a potential for almost mercurial change. In a sense she is creates a condition of “light and space” through the gesturality the light-and-space artists themselves abandon. No wonder Colón is impelled to seal the “Kinetic Light” works beneath veils of resin; if she didn’t, it almost seems as if her paintings would evanesce, their forms and colors vanishing gradually into thin air.

This, of course, is a fanciful, if not romantic, description of the effect the “Kinetic Light” paintings can have on a viewer. Such shimmering elusiveness is indeed an important element, and certainly a beguiling one – and it arguably connects Colón to yet another Latin American artistic tradition, that of magic realism. Her paintings manifest the very spirit of Borges, Cortazar, and A Hundred Years of Solitude – but in no way do they tell stories. Rather, they manifest conditions, many at once, none for long. They may be carefully assembled, but they are not robotic; rather, that assembly brings an architectural logic to them, enhancing rather than suppressing their organic vitality.

“I strive for the creation of an object that captures the feeling of material richness,” Gisela Colón notes, a richness she associates with “a better time, almost a utopian existence, like many western cities experienced mid-century.” Colón’s paintings brim with this lustrous allure, and with the nostalgia that flavors it, particularly as rendered by a sensibility formed just outside the postwar bubble. But in their reflective surfaces and vibrating shapes Colón’s paintings brim as well with a restless energy, a potential for entropy, metamorphosis, even cataclysm. If they reflect back to the postwar era that Colón never knew, they reflect forward to the post-digital age that Colón’s children will inhabit, an age not of limitless possibilities but urgent necessities and rapidly changing realities. Colón’s painting can at first seem decorative and self-contained; but it is fraught with pathos, and at the same time radiates hope. It summarizes Modernist abstraction even as it looks forward to a newer, humbler neo-Modernism. In its message as well as its material it is built to last.