James Little at June Kelly Gallery

James Little in the studio; courtesy MiniSpace.com

* * *

The line that can be drawn from an artist’s stated intentions–his goals, enthusiasms and aesthetic underpinnings–to the resulting artworks isn’t always a straight one. The creative process can take on a life of its own, steering the artist, not so much away from his goals, but toward goals he couldn’t necessarily have imagined on his own. The old saw about trusting the art and not the artist points to this fundamental and sometimes vexing truth.

Upon visiting James Little in his Williamsburg studio–standing amongst plastic containers filled with brilliant color, paint brushes attached to broom sticks and innumerable pictures, both in progress and completed–I realized, in pretty short order, that here was an artist who could be trusted. In Little’s case, a line can, in fact, be drawn between ambition and aesthetic fact. Listening to him discuss the role of abstraction, its historical importance and, not least, its continuing relevance was to encounter artistic drive inseparable from philosophical clarity. The man knows what he’s doing.

As an abstract painter, Little builds upon principles set forth by the Bauhaus and The New York School. But what does it mean to be a modernist in the twenty-first century? Haven’t we been there, done that? Not in Little’s estimation. Favoring tradition over novelty and dogged persistence over glib nihilism, he insists on the viability of modernism as a living resource. Whether taking into account the impeccably orchestrated geometries of Mondrian or Barnett Newman’s expansive vistas of form and color, Little divines, not history per se, but possibility. Nothing if not forward thinking, he insists that established art forms are far from established–that they contain wellsprings for development, elaboration and continuity.

Given the work’s depth and rigor, Little’s drive–his optimism, really–has paid off. He doesn’t reiterate precedent; he reinvents it. Pictorial tropes–line, field and scale; jewel-like colors and stark shifts in space–are rendered with startling precision. Little is a painter of minimal means–the stripe is a compositional foundation; the triangle, a means of emphasis and contrast. But the resulting paintings are maximal in impact. Pronounced, often abrupt rhythms and bold patterning point to a sensibility attuned to the subtleties of pictorial construction. In his palette especially, Little demonstrates an uncanny knack for art’s evocative power and range. Frank Stella famously quipped that art was a matter of “What you see is what you see”. Little’s mantra could be “What you see is what you see–and everything else besides.”

Little’s sense of color in encompassing in terms of inspiration and allusion, and glances upon a dizzying array of cultural touchstones–from Vermeer’s light-filled interiors to the paint job on a passing livery cab, from Byzantine reliquaries to African textiles to the myriad construction sites surrounding his Brooklyn studio. Credit goes out to Little’s touch as well. This is “hard edge” painting defined by an emphatic, softly stated sensuality. Little’s canvases, crafted from finely calibrated mixtures of oil and beeswax, are lustrous and dense, just short of fleshy. That’s why comparisons of the work to Op Art aren’t altogether satisfactory: Little’s pictures go beyond optics and reaffirm that the eye is part of the mind, sure, but it belongs to the body, too. Pleasure is to be embraced and embodied. Little realizes this endeavor with quiet and consummate mastery.

Published on the occasion of James Little; Ex Pluribus Unum, an exhibition at June Kelly Gallery; it remains on display until June 21, 2011.

Postscript: I’ve written about Little’s work several times, including here.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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