Windows to Fluidity: Tomma Abts at the Art Institute
By Gabriel Vara
Since 1998, London-based artist Tomma Abts has confined herself to a 19.8 x 15 inch canvas. The German-born contemporary artist produces acrylic and oil-on-canvas works that start with washes of color that are gradually built upon until they result in forms and figures that show tension between stasis and an apparent potential for movement. By working with strict parameters, Abts puts emphasis on the manipulation of basic formal elements such as circles, arcs, stripes and lines to create complex illusory spaces. The artist’s first solo exhibit in the United States in 10 years consists of more than 30 recent works from across the United States and Europe which highlight the complexities of her creative process.
As you step through the exhibit doors, the space seems unusually empty. Two benches sit in the middle of both rooms of the exhibit, surrounded by dozens of identically sized canvases, with what seems like miles of space between them. It is not until closer inspection that viewers can appreciate how unique and captivating Abts’ paintings are. Each piece boasts a different style, while also connected to one another by size. The shadows and patterns of the paintings create impressive depth, making it feel as if you could fall into them. The myriad of colors used also contributes to the illusory aspect of the paintings, making lines and shapes appear as if they are flowing inches off of the canvas. Occasionally, Abts will cut or shape a canvas, which adds to paintings built around the manipulation but appears unnecessary in some of the pieces.
A great example of this canvas manipulation is “Oeje” (2016). Abts cut the bottom left corner of the canvas in which a yellow-outlined circle sits seamlessly. A sharp red line divides the piece diagonally, connecting with another line in the top left corner. A fading blue stroke seems to emerge from the canvas, its shadows above the circle convincing the viewer of its depth and its subtle blue tint contrasting against the grey canvas. “Oeje,” meaning “eye” in Danish, is an oddly relaxing piece. While it can be seen as a simple eye, letting yourself interpret the non-representational shapes personally is the best way to take in Abts artworks.
A more illusory and almost psychedelic piece is “Tedo” (2002). This visually intense piece features dozens of long, three-dimensional columns connecting the edges of the canvas to the center broken up by a dark, erratic ring around the canvas. Almost hypnotic, “Tedo” draws the viewer in and is much more open to interpretation then other pieces.
The title piece of the exhibit, “Fimme” (2013), encapsulates Abts ideas and techniques: ta balance between the patterned lines circling the center that is broken up by colorful rings similar to “Tedo.” The colors and patterns on the shapes add contrast between elements, and although they are visually confusing, you can still identify the various overlaps and shadows created. As if stopped in motion, this piece perfectly reflects Abts ideas about stasis and the potential for movement, and ties the artworks together nicely. Overall, Tomma Abts’ contemporary exhibit is a wonderfully confusing experience, with her paintings invoking the viewer to project their own contemplations on her pieces.