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Living Large

Size Matters in the Minimalist Paintings of Timothy App

GEOMETRY PROBLEM: In works such as "Monitor," Timothy App avoids chilly abstraction with earthy color.
"Leviathan"

By J. Bowers | Posted 6/22/2005

Timothy App: A Selection of Works 1998-2005

At the Goya Contemporary through June 25

Timothy App’s bold abstractions don’t work well in miniature. Composed of obsessively applied thin layers of acrylic on monumental rectangular and square canvases, App’s nonobjective geometric compositions begin as average, underwhelming small-scale studies on paper. Thankfully, Goya Contemporary’s current App survey keeps the focus on the austere canvases for which he’s known, only offering a selection of his lithograph studies as a window into the artist’s unusually formulaic approach toward composition. Nearly all of App’s works—including all on view at Goya—feature a jumble of seven geometric elements, rendered in rich earth tones and arranged to create the illusion of tension and altered space. It’s kind of like the difference between a gigantic temple Buddha statue and a little bedside tabletop representation—both versions convey the same basic emotional gravity, but size does matter.

App’s mustard yellow, gray, slate blue, black, gesso white, and russet tones are weak and insipid in his paper studies. With these smaller works, even dalliances with pink, sky blue, and other brighter shades obscure the logic, thought, and geometric know-how put into his compositional choices—there’s nothing remarkable here, only the seeds of something greater. Which, to be fair, is all you can ask from a study. By contrast, App’s massive canvases soak up the acrylic, transforming an otherwise flat surface into a surprisingly rich interaction between texture and color, despite his limited, drab palette. In the larger pieces, the acrylic washes create vast, hypnotic fields of mercurial color, impossible to appreciate without close inspection, and badly represented in 2-D reproductions. His yellows are created by layering several grays and then applying yellow; his slate blues repeat a similar process with ultramarine. The process allows for greater control over the mixing and merging of colors, and often App’s paints are layered so thickly that they look almost like strips of fabric applied to the canvas, instead of a technique designed to highlight the canvas itself. The overall effect is cartographic, a kind of representational space, not a real one.

“Monitor,” completed in 1999, fits gray parallelograms and skinny angular shapes around a striking, thickly layered black triangle. The composition draws attention to the triangle’s monolithlike shape, then breaks the tension—and the implied geometric perfection—with a bright white square that swallows one third of the triangle whole. App is fond of dealing in fractions—the sharp, incised edges, compassed semicircles, and precise measurements in his works create an otherworldly, machinelike unease, contradicted by his color choices, which suggest a primitive, earthy vibe. His titles, gleaned from a running list of allusive words he finds himself attracted to, add to the viewing frustration—calling a jumble of dark angular shapes “Leviathan” suggests a link to Moby Dick, or Jonah and the Whale, or any other number of literary references, but App’s canvas tells no tales. Drawn in by texture and color, repelled by the edgy, impersonal stiffness of geometry, App’s audience is left feeling a curious unease.

Needless to say, App’s work offers limited variations, and seen en masse his obsessions are readily apparent. The paintings here reference the same basic color families, shapes, and compositional themes, time and time again, as if App is searching for the perfect balance, or imperfect imbalance, in the same places, waiting for a breakthrough that has yet to come. Still, even an unvarying show like this one contains standouts—App particularly excels with rectangular canvases, where he has more room to toy with his beloved angles and more irregular edges and corners. “Sorcerer” is a 60-by-78-inch piece dominated by a creamy off-yellow semicircle edged with a textural raised black line. This shape hints at a new direction—the addition of curvature throws App slightly off-balance, forcing him to deal with his old shapes in new, striking ways. Other works, such as “Magus,” feel unfocused, lacking a strong central element to anchor and direct the eye. And “Vulcan” offers too many strong spatial contenders—a bold black triangle and two interrupted parallelograms point downward and draw the eye right off the canvas.

Despite App’s rigid, minimalist style’s limitations, his command of color and mathematical approach to line adds a layer of nuance and interest to his monumental works. It’s a cliché, but his pieces need to be seen to be appreciated—if only because it’s rare to find an artist whose works are as giant, mysterious, and imposing as the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith and, simultaneously, as soothing and meditative as a Zen koan. App is that guy.

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