Milt Jewell

12 February 1980 - 25 February 1980
Opening Reception 12 February 1980 8pm

Rick Rhodes
Vanguard, April 1980

What’s most likeable about Milt Jewell’s two-part painting, called Avenging Angels, is the gritty, ersatz surface. The underpainting of acrylic covered by iron filings has a tactile density that favours concrete properties over pictorial ones. It’s substantial and it also indicates a stance, rooted to Robert Ryman’s work and Richard Serra’s wall drawings, that a picture is firstly a material presence. What’s not likeable is that this powerful surface ends up stranded and unmotivated within the painting as a whole. Jewell loads his formal and conceptual intentions almost exclusively on the edges of the various shapes and the result is an alienation between surface and edge which handicaps the painting.

A painting or a drawing usually works when there is a sense that substance is being moved or activated within the piece distinctly enough to be felt and understood. If substance (I mean the physicality of the object, its mass and concrete properties) doesn’t move, or if action carries too little substance, then a vital connection slips, resulting in a stasis or else an artificiality. Jewell opts for activity over substance in cutting loose the surface to concentrate on the edges. He ends up with a painting that has a half-empty form.

Consider the core sections in each part of the painting. One appears derived from a rectangle that has been rotated on a single axis into several positions and which is now presented as a single multi-pointed shape. Each outside edge projects through the interior of the shape to the other side where it again emerges as a literal outside edge. In the other one the initial template is unclear and no outside edge projects coherently through the interior but that doesn’t stop the interior from seeming full of crisscrossing edges of overlapping shapes. What happens to the surface in all this is that it demateralizes into a space polarized between the fitness of the final shape and the illusionistic space that allows for the overlapping. Even at the core, that which has no edge is of no consequence in Jewell’s painting.

Added shapes are fitted around the core like pieces of a jigsaw. At their outermost edges they appear to conform to a flatter, more blunt geometry which makes these shapes function as connective parts linking core edge to the edge of the painting against the wall. Surface is experienced here as simply quantities of flat space; it’s map-maker’s land subordinated to straight lines.

The edge against the wall is the summation of the painting, the place where the ordering arrives. Two edges appear more vivid than the others against the white wall. They are positive and negative of each other and would fit together if the two sections were joined. The vividness is partially linked to the fact that these two edges carry more conceptual weight than the others. They suggest that the jigsaw notion connects across space and doesn’t depend on proximity alone. Part of their vividness, their sense of weight, also involves the fact that these edges bring the wall into the painting as negative space, not just a conventional support for the cut mahogany shapes. A portion of the wall is felt as a gap meant to be closed.

That the painting accomplishes the activation of the wall between the jigsaw edges is proof that Jewell’s structuring is somewhat involving. Otherwise the two edges would sit as passively against the wall as the other edges do. But although the structure is involving, it is not convincing. The drift of the space–from illusionistic, vague cores, through literal, additive stages, to a kind of open-endedness at the extremities — strikes me as picture of a cosmology based on optimistic historicism. I’m just not sure things work this way. Too much material gets left behind, just like in the painting.