“Signs and Systems”: Modernist Abstraction 2.0

Rhona Hoffman Gallery



“Signs and Systems” at Rhona Hoffman Gallery presents recent work from contemporary artists that explores somewhat less recent but still relevant modernist ideas. The role of the grid in the organization and presentation of visual information as well as the inclusion of codified systems are present in five works from 4 artists who deploy color, line, image, and space in different ways.

The tradition of painting is a dominant force in this selection of works even when the pieces are in 3D. Though four of these large-scale works are in the main gallery, Lawrence Kenny’s Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby hangs on the wall over the office. The finely printed, multicolor text is still legible, but the piece could benefit from more distance so that it could also be viewed as an abstract color composition. The tension between text and colors organized on a grid is evocative of modern day digital data systems and signifies the absorption of cultural material into systemized spaces.


Lawrence Kenny, Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby, 2018. Digital print mounted on Dibond board, 58.6 x 112 inches. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.


This exploration of tension between systems and imagery continues into the main gallery. Kenny’s second piece in the show, Wirework, stands in contrast to Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby. Composed of four steel wire structures on the wall, these spare, intersecting squares bear few differences as objects. Their arrangement and interaction with light extend their visual form beyond that of the steel wire itself, allowing the shadows to complicate the spatial realm of the forms with geometry and perspective akin to architectural imagery.


Matt Mullican, Untitled (Pantagraph), 2016. Acrylic, gouache, and oil stick rubbing on canvas, 78.75 x 157.5 inches. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.


Matt Mullican pushes perceptual boundaries of the architectural and mechanical in Untitled (Pantagraph), a mixed media rubbing on two adjacent square canvases. A mostly symmetrical drawing alludes to the aesthetics of vintage technical schematics while hybridizing the structure of a railroad car with a building. The result is an ambiguous, machine-like structure that undermines an established phenomenology of forms. Mullican accentuates this with a kind of micro and macro binary key system. The canvas on the right is a vibrant pollen color, while the one on the left is a cool, light gray. Within the image on the far sides are two floating squares. In the left square, there is a circle; in the right, a globe. These signs may be clear symbolic references, but even to the unfamiliar, they lend to a playful ambiguity. Think NASA’s pioneer plaque.

Ambiguity also abounds in Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project: Collection of Seventy-two Perfect Couples. Perhaps the most laborious undertaking in the exhibition, this grid of form cut from wood appears as a single piece and is priced as such but is still described as a collection of multiple works. The organic shapes are ambiguous enough to simultaneously reference microorganisms, Incan glyphs, jigsaw puzzle pieces, and so on. Titling them as “perfect couples,” however, suggests something more human, and the variation of color and size relationships between the shapes opens the door for this piece to be read as an archival monument to inclusive relationships and body positivity, though I doubt this was a motivation for McCollum.

Last but not least is Caroline Van Damme’s Green Horizon—Staccato. Harking back to the spatial inquiries of sculptural works from artists like Donald Judd, Anne Truitt, or even the paintings of Blinky Palermo, Green Horizon uses what seem to be basic hardware store essentials like dowels, wood trim, and lacquer to produce simple objects that complicate space. Even more so than Kenny’s Wirework, Van Damme’s piece activates the space of the gallery, performing a subtle forced perspective through color that serves as kind of metric for how we perceive the space we move through.

Ironically enough, a number of other works in the annexes of the gallery that are not part of this exhibition nevertheless seem be in dialogue with the themes. I found it refreshing to see codified systems and the grid being explored in a wider range of aesthetic modes and processes. It would serve this exhibition well to extend the work beyond the familiar minimalist aesthetics to include the more painterly, such as with Judy Ledgerwood’s 2006 Grandma’s Flower Garden or the 1988 instructional drawing Community House by Vito Acconci.

Though the works in the main gallery are contemporary, they appear to be mired in historicity. Walking into the gallery and seeing the Sol LeWitt wall drawing set a historical tone, and the main works in “Signs and Systems” do little to upend that framework.  Upon encountering Ledgerwood’s Grandma’s Flower Garden, which bears some similarities to McCollum’s Shapes Project, the notion that exploration of signs and systems need to be relegated to the manufactured aesthetics and dry colors of the mid-twentieth century was immediately challenged. And the inclusion of Vito Acconci’s Community House injects some much-needed absurdity into the minimalist field that, despite its efforts to present a universality of populist form, is often written off as hyper-intellectual and elitist.

Be that as it may, there is fine work to be seen at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery that serves as a good start to a new year of exhibitions.


Evan Carter


“Signs and Systems” was on view from January 11th to February 16th at 1711 W. Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622.


Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.

Judy Ledgerwood, Grandma's Flower Garden, 2006. Acrylic mica, acrylic gouache, and oil on canvas, 84 × 120 in, 213.4 × 304.8 cm. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

Allan McCollum, The Shapes Project: Collection of Seventy-two Perfect Couples, 2005-2012. Acrylic with varnish on New England Rock Maple with cradled basswood panels, 10 x 10 inches. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.




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