Out of the Woods: Benjamin Butler at Klaus von Nichtssagend, Sam Moyer at Rachel Uffner, Guy Goodwin at Brennan & Griffin

Benjamin Butler paints trees. As a shtick, it’s awfully specific, but as a formal constraint, it’s surprisingly open-ended, because the

Benjamin Butler, 'Untitled Forest,' 2012 (Courtesy Klaus von Nichtssagend)

Benjamin Butler paints trees. As a shtick, it’s awfully specific, but as a formal constraint, it’s surprisingly open-ended, because the organic patterns of a plant’s growth, while necessarily always having a particular, recognizable type of coherence—one that’s similar to but more limited than that of any good painting—are extremely flexible; because Mr. Butler can pull those patterns almost to literal figuration, or push them toward decorative abstraction; and because of his sophisticated but fanciful colors.

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Blue Forest, for example, is predominantly robin’s egg blue, and two called Untitled Forest are orange and lavender, respectively. All three divide canvases roughly the size of a sheet of legal paper into broad, vertical, bamboolike stripes of color between narrower, darker lines that also branch out diagonally. It’s a kind of left-hand figuration, a visual onomatopoeia that creates the sensation of looking through leaves and trunks by replicating not their actual shapes, but their formal density. And they do this not only on the x-y plane, but also on the z axis, by means of unexpected brightnesses of color and well-timed half-steps away from chromatic harmony—teal under lavender, a bit of emerald green under pale gold. Like a real forest, they’re deep patterns that can also register as flat.

A larger piece, Green Forest, consists of five extremely narrow canvases just over six feet high, variably spaced according to the size of the wall, each split down the middle by a black line with stripes of green not so much branching out as coming together. Yellow Tree looks like the cross-section of a strange tropical fruit or alien muscle fiber. And five paintings each titled Grey Tree experiment with different types of branching lines, straight, swooping, hanging, bow shape. But the strongest pieces are the ones in which the branches serve merely as frameworks for holding color. Autumn Forest (Sixty-Three Trees) is divided into 63 vertical strips. These strips are crossed by dozens of swinging angled lines, legible not only as branches but also as curtains, vines or lines of some decadent-period Arabic calligraphy; they make the orange-yellow, sunset-orange and firetruck red tree trunks behind them look like psychedelic rain.

Sam Moyer’s six large canvases at Rachel Uffner also have at least one corner in the forest. Dyed with India ink, wrinkled, ironed and partially painted with bleach before being affixed to wooden panels—The Great Divide is cut into vertical strips and attached to wooden blinds in the window; Slack Liner I, II and III, which are also all marked with faded, bleach-induced horizontal stripes, are conventional rectangles, as are The Drink and Oh, Lonesome Me—they all look a bit like a forest at night, or like photographs, taken who knows how, of thin white roots in soil. But that much is incidental; the pieces are abstractions, and the forest comes in as metaphor. The Drink, especially, could be a map of the unconscious, a map of a tar pit made while drowning in it, a map of the backs of one’s eyelids—a map, in other words, of some space that is impervious to mapping.

The dyed-in wrinkles create a multiplicity of optical illusions. Some parts look as if they’re projecting forward, others look like photographs, and still others look like shadows cast from the street. The canvases themselves are also cropped, and assembled, in some cases, from smaller pieces, so that a few real, discreet folds and joins jockey against merely apparent folds and joins. To some degree, the interaction of all these different depths and types of illusion takes the place of more traditional pictorial composition.

But to try to read them as if they were traditionally composed is still more interesting. Not only the hand-painted bleach marks and occasional white drips, but even the random effects of wrinkling and ink have such specificity as marks, such particularity, that it’s difficult not to read any given piece as a singular pattern or gesture. At the same time, those particular marks surge into one another with such smooth continuity that it’s impossible to separate them. It’s another visual onomatopoeia, this one for the unreality of authorship.

The bright and puffy paintings of Guy Goodwin’s recently closed “Recent Works” at Brennan & Griffin began in the forest, too—in the sense that some forest had to be pulped, processed and discarded on the street before Mr. Goodwin could make them. Set into cardboard boxes, with edges projecting forward, they show long shapes like deeply ground-down teeth or quilted sofa cushions, cut into the backing panels or built up with extra layers of cardboard, overlapping and floating against monochromatic fields. In Tania’s Day, red, yellow, black and olive forms tussle against a ground of industrial orange; 2-2-3-3 Interior’s ground is a deep New England blue; and 2-3-3-4 Interior’s a creamy brown. In smaller pieces, like Community A, Community C and Community D, the shapes mutate and proliferate like bacteria, forming their own chaotic background.

At first sight, the cardboard and simple warm colors give a flickering impression of grade-school idealism; but then the quiet subtlety of colder colors and the precision of execution, particularly distinct against rough materials, reveal the struggle and discipline it takes to protect any such ideal or even to reach it in the first place. The results wobble, like Charlie Chaplin losing his balance, between pathos and delight.



Out of the Woods: Benjamin Butler at Klaus von Nichtssagend, Sam Moyer at Rachel Uffner, Guy Goodwin at Brennan & Griffin