The moss ceiling at Johansson Projects, Oakland is looking down on a particularly interesting two-person show this month. “Formalities” features the work of painter Steuart Pittman and sculptor Dan Grayber. Educated at Mills College and the San Francisco Art Institute respectively, these artists work in complementary geometric and mechanical modes.
Pittman works as a framer by day and creates the elegant housing for his paintings whose shapes fit together as carefully as their casings. Using bold motifs and color combinations – black and chartreuse, blue and fire engine red – he creates work reminiscent of the scuffed, layered patina of local buildings. Though abstract and minimal, these pieces are anything but industrial or inhuman. Like Paul Klee or Joan Miró, Pittman imbues simple shapes with joy and emotion.
The series “8-Hour Day” captures the painter’s experience of working a full day in the frame shop. Textures range from sandy ground to crackling glaze. The colors are illuminating, laced with neon and laid down in tiny, precise brushstrokes or loose washes. Capturing a range of feeling, these paintings show dark failure, pale clarity and yellow contentment. “Bum Bum” depicts purple buttocks against a dark background; “Shake & Bake” references the sounds of druggies shaking up their meth on the artist’s street; and “Bad Boys” is a two-panel painting of four triangles huddled at the bottom of the composition against a white background.
Humor and humans don’t factor into Dan Grayber’s work. The sculptor makes spring-loaded mechanical objects that hold themselves up, set in empty corners or glass cases like objects in a wunderkammer. Installed in the gallery’s front room, “Corner Mechanism #4” looks like a spider crouched above an unlucky fly. Weighted by a cement cylinder hanging inches above the floor, the work looks like a brace holding up the very walls. It is not attached to, much less supporting, the wall: the downward pull of the cylinder pushes the spring-loaded legs outwards with just enough force to keep the whole contraption up.
Grayber writes, “My sculptures are invented only to sustain themselves, functioning as self-resolving problems.” In this statement explaining how his sculptures explore the idea of need without the human element, the artist actually removes himself through passive language. He talks about his work as if a force outside his body were creating it and using him as the intermediary. The works are squat and compact, as in Cavity Mechanism #10, accordion-jointed starbursts, as in Cavity Mechanism #12, or speeding landcrafts frozen in time, as in Display Case Mechanism #2.
“Formalities” is on view through through November 14.
-Contributed by Ariel Rosen