30 years of rhythm and hues
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, February 8, 2013
It’s easy to imagine the never-ending pleasure of living with one of Andrea Way’s intricate abstractions, now on view at the American University Museum in a 30-year retrospective of the Washington artist’s work.
After making an initial circuit of the third-floor gallery where several dozen of Way’s dense yet contemplative pictures are handsomely hung, it’s tempting to take a second or even a third pass at the same compositions you’ve just seen.
That’s not because the images (which lie halfway between drawing and painting) are so difficult to read. Rather, that is because so many of them invite -- and reward -- close and repeated inspection.
Typically characterized by a system of markmaking that alternates between rigid grids and loosely concentric or spiraling vortices, Way’s works draw you in even as they push you away. That’s not a bad thing. The pictures, most on paper, create the illusion that, if left to their own devices, they might just keep going, well beyond the edges of the frame.
In fact, they probably could.
That’s because Way’s method of working typically involves the adoption of several simple, perhaps even mathematical, rules, which she methodically executes until she runs out of room. The earliest pieces in the show, for example, involve simple counting, with numerals written (and sometimes spelled out) as if in a ledger. The only thing that stops the “River of Numbers,” as one 1982 work is called, is that the artist ran out of space on the page.
More recent works incorporate more-complex systems.
Two 2012 pieces, for example, make use of a structure that came to the artist in a dream, during a 2009 trip to Venice: Way starts by drawing a dash mark near the center of the paper. Then, turning clockwise, she adds two more dashes at a right angle to the first, followed by three, then four dashes, each time turning clockwise 90 degrees until the pattern spirals out to the edge of the paper. (A second exhibition of several pieces from this body of work, known as the “Venetian Dream” series, will go on view at Curator’s Office, beginning Feb. 16.)
Aside from the early counting works, you won’t necessarily see these patterns if you look for them. Way’s art is layered, and it is compounded by secondary rules, by accident and by what the artist calls the introduction of “points of departure” to her rules. A series of dots that seems to follow a prescribed rhythm, for example, might suddenly start skipping every 10th beat, like a cardiac arrhythmia.
If her pictures have a DNA, in other words, it provides only the biological blueprint. The destiny of Way’s images is their own.
And if that makes Way’s pictures sound like living things, it’s an apt analogy. The natural sciences are a fascination of hers, and it shows, in works that resemble images from, at one end of the spectrum, cellular biology, and, at the other, celestial maps.
Music also is a major influence on Way, with Bach a favorite composer for his formal complexity. Way hints at this, in works titled “Fugue” and “Baroque Joy.”
There is, however, a heck of a lot more jazz in these works than first appears. From a distance, it’s the overall structure -- what critic David Tannous calls the pictures’ “bass notes” -- that you hear, and little else. But get close, look and listen.
Inside Way’s pictures is the mysterious music of the cosmos.
The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, February 8, 2013
Making art according to an arbitrary set of rules sounds limiting. But for Andrea Way, there’s a liberating pleasure in setting up a series of strictures without knowing what will follow. With the curiosity of a scientist -- or a child -- she says, “I like to see where it leads.”
Sometimes, it leads to being painted into a corner.
That happened with “Voice,” a 1988 piece incorporating both concentric rings and a labyrinthine spiral of runelike symbols. Way recalls that combination as turning into a “nightmare from hell” when she couldn’t make peace between the two warring patterns. After wrestling with it for two or three months, she almost ripped the picture up in frustration.
Yet after putting it aside for a while, she was able to come back and puzzle out a visual solution. In the process, Way says that she learned a valuable lesson: Art, like life, is sometimes hard. Instead of complaining, Way says she has now come to value the difficulty. In art, as in life, she explains, it’s hardship that “makes the easy times sacred.”