Triumph of the arc: Abstractions sunny and genial

It’s funny how, even today, a bunch of shapes on a canvas can seem modern and a little bit foreboding. It’s also easy to forget that fields of squares and circles and lines substituted on canvas for images of people having good, bad, or indifferent times has been happening since before World War I. And in Russia, no less, where it must have seemed very modern and very foreboding.
So, as it happens, Caroline Cobb’s work now on display at the Mudhouse, is increasingly less modern all the time. Geometric abstraction approaches its 100th birthday early in the next decade, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. As for foreboding, that’s a subjective thing. But certainly, if Geometric abstraction was still even a little bit foreboding for some people, it should be completely unforeboding for everyone from now on, coming after Cobb’s sunny, genial geometry.
For her small paintings on paper, Cobb chose for herself an aesthetic exercise: What can be done with a restricted selection of colors and a somewhat more expanded sampling of shapes? The colors she chose– warm, easygoing colors like mustard yellows, deep oranges, and reds as dominant colors, saving the colder blues and greens for small details– give her work an inviting, sunny look.
Joseph Albers, the greatest lover the square has ever known, liked to juxtapose great blocks of color to show how perceptions of color change in different contexts. In Cobb’s work, the effect is closer to inviting synergy– within each painting and between every painting on the wall (which all use the same colors, and thus look nice next to one another).
Additionally, Cobb varies her textures from one block of color to the next. She scrapes and worries sections to varying degrees, but all subtly. Viewers often have to lean in to notice.
For her part, Cobb is not quite the shape monogamist that Albers is. Her paintings may be full of shapes, lines, and angles, but she does have her favorite. Nearly every painting included in this particular set includes at least one big arc, which seems to be the defining element. All the other patterns and shapes in her work seem to interact or emanate from these arcs.
One sweeping arc, in a particular painting, sits at the bottom of the frame, running from one side of the canvas to the other. It appears to be almost catching or cupping Cobb’s squares and little queues of half-circles.
Two particular paintings stand out. In one, in what looks like a complicated geometry lesson, two arcs cross, and beyond their point of intersection, begin to fade. Within inches, they’re entirely gone. This depiction of the end of arcs, it seems to me, should be the last.
One other painting stands out from the others– the one with no easygoing colors and without Cobb’s familiar, shape-packed scene. It shows a single orange line running from top to bottom and bordered on either side with great blocks of drab colors that run off the ends of the canvas.
Remember high school geometry class, when it got all philosophical? When, with five minutes left in the period, the teacher would talk about how if you kept adding sides to shapes with equal-length sides, it looks more and more like a circle and that the circle is really a shape with infinite sides? I am convinced that Cobb has found one. This painting, obviously, is the beginning.

Abstract paintings by Caroline Cobb are on display at the downtown location of Mudhouse through January. 984-6833.


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