Controlled Experiments: ‘Process 01: Joy,’ at P!, ‘Katrín Sigurdadóttir: Ellefu,’ at Eleven Rivington, ‘Etel Adnan’ at Callicoon Fine Arts

WHEN DUTCH DESIGNER AND TYPOGRAPHER KAREL MARTENS came to P!, graphic designer Prem Krishnamurthy’s new exhibition space on Broome Street, to see the first-ever full show of his letterpress monoprints—installed alongside the aggressively heartbreaking social photography of Chauncey Hare and Christine Hill’s installation Volksboutique Small Business Outpost (Chinatown Division)—he insisted on some changes. It was the day before the opening, but Mr. Martens felt it was important that the hanging of his prints reflect the loose, spontaneous way in which they had been made. His is the kind of loose spontaneity that results from diligent practice and rigorous editing.

Mr. Martens works slowly, rolling one simple, cheery color at a time onto washers, circuit boards, pieces of Meccano (which are like metal Legos) or “furniture”—the low metal blocks normally used to cram inked letterpress type into place—and then printing simple, graphic forms on found paper with its own aesthetic or historical interest. One Venn-diagram-like figure made from overlapping round C shapes in yellow, blue, pink and white is printed on tissue paper from a box of chocolates; several of the prints use archive cards from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which were themselves designed by onetime museum director Willem Sandberg, and which record, in elegant crow quill handwriting, restorations to works by Gerrit Rietveld and Hamish Fulton.

The thoughtful restraint of these experiments allows them to bring into subtle relief the narrow overlap between archiving, curating, and creating, and the intimate interplay between form and function; they creep up on beauty from behind. Untitled, circa 2005—the dates are approximate, because Mr. Martens’s work is always in progress—shows a six-sided, solid orange-red figure with the outline of a cube drawn in three-quarters view. The color doesn’t obscure but rather highlights the printed legend of an archive card from the Moravian Museum in Brno, and the shape, like a Zen painting signed by Yves Klein, at once stamps the card with a new function as art and serves as the product of that function. Claiming nothing, it claims everything.

KATRÍN SIGURDADÓTTIR WAS RAISED in the upper duplex of a four-story house at 11 Langahlíð Street in Reykjavik, Iceland. To make the three solemnly complex architectural sculptures of her current show at Eleven Rivington, “Ellefu” (“eleven”), she used the selective and reconstitutive action of memory, recombining random pieces of the past in ways that hide their incompleteness. She also used the defensive idealism of dreams; the context-dependent mechanism of photographic composition, in which shapes derive meaning largely from what they leave out; delicate basswood frames; and white hydrocal, poured, sanded and polished. Produced with enormous labor, the sculptures give a first impression of casualness.

Each 46-inch-high piece—they’re low enough to look down into, but too high to be overlooked—reconstructs actual doorways, corners, windows and stairs from the artist’s childhood home and joins them to form an open, three-story structure without roof or furniture, and mostly without exterior walls. Wherever you situate yourself in Eleven Rivington, you are afforded a view of a beautiful composition, but it’s one the eye can’t penetrate; like diagrams of the flatness of memory, these constructions are meant to be looked at, not inhabited. A doorway in the bottom of Living Room, Hallway, Bedroom has a strip of wood across the bottom, but otherwise each spare, fragile model rests on the gallery’s slick concrete floor.

LEBANESE-BORN ARTIST ETEL ADNAN  studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Berkeley and Harvard, and began teaching aesthetics at Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif., in 1958. Only after that did she begin painting. Her work appeared extensively across the recent documenta 13, but she is only now having her first New York solo show, at Callicoon Fine Arts. Like Karel Martens’s prints, the show’s 14 small canvases are vague with regard to date—although one is marked 1990, Adnan recollects painting them all between 2000 and 2005—and for a similar reason: they’re more like relics of the artist’s ongoing attempt to interpret visual information, or instruments of a meditative practice, than they are singular finished works.

Using thick, often unmixed paint applied directly to canvas with a palette knife, Ms. Adnan examines her own perceptions of Mount Tamalpais, north of San Francisco, in different weather and from different angles. Simplified shapes and outlandish colors serve not expression, but precision: Skies can be olive green or bloody, Jungian red as easily as pale Pacific blue or cloudy white, but it’s always perfectly clear what the artist was looking at.

White, gray and eight colors related to olive green, in one piece, crash together in large, distinct patches in the bottom two-thirds of a small canvas, forming a middle ridge that guides the eye up to a round, powder-blue peak against a turquoise sky. This is a philosophical space where no position can be occupied by more than one color, a perceptual space where depth is portrayed, but not recreated, and a detached temporal space that teases out the analogy between a mountain and the crest of a wave.

On its left side, the outline of the peak is emphasized by a thin ridge of turquoise paint. This is an artifact of painting with a palette knife, but it’s also appropriate to Ms. Adnan’s project of painting what she sees, and a clear conceptual successor to her earlier, mosaic-like abstractions. Because what we really see, before our learned or instinctive interpretations rush in, are blocks of color, distinctly separate and meaningless, pressed right up against the eye.

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