On ViewDeanna Evans Projects
May 19–June 24, 2023
A playful line, cutting around and across abstract constellations of squares, tiny stars, or triple helixes, is consistent throughout Courtney Childress’s seven new works on view at Deanna Evans Projects. The line takes up various guises, as a knotty string, chain links, an incomplete halo, or a very long wave that snakes back and forth across the front of the canvas in horizontal stripes. Unlike the continuity of a drawn line or the coherence of a gestural brush mark, Childress’s twists and translucent fields are made by using barbed needles to meticulously push colored wool fibers through an unprimed canvas, or by tacking hand-felted yarn down onto that same surface. (One exception is the tangled green readymade strand that runs through Untitled (After Lady Rainicorn) (2022), left over from a sweater Childress made for herself). In a logic of building next to rather than building up, stronger color concentrations result from thicker passages of adjacent fibers, not from stacked layers. A beautiful and highly effective consequence of this mode of making is the near impossibility of discerning whether a given form is in front of or behind another felted element intersecting it. Look, for instance, at the five spindly icicles in olive and graphite that hang ethereally across the top half of Untitled (Inflatable) (2022), which appear on the same surface plane as the horizontal lines that traverse the entire image.
The artist works from the canvas’s verso, meaning that she sees the mirror image of the composition in formation, and only partially. This decoupling of the image and the process of its materialization yields compositions likewise unmoored from gravity or set orientation. Most canvases would seem equally successful rotated 180 degrees, even if doing so alters their associative readings. The concentric pink, gray, and purple squares that hover along the upper limit of Untitled (rainbow cloud wind) (2022), for instance, suggest a dream catcher or a kite aloft. Flipped upside down, they would instead seem like an anchor or jewelry charm. Akin to sculptor Matthew Ronay, Childress uses the language of abstraction to limn that narrow margin between familiar and strange, legible and obscured, as if naming what we see is always—and only—just at the tip of our tongues. This fuzzy relation between signifier and signified also defines Childress’s use of scale, which charts things at once microscopic, life-size, and cosmic. Reminiscent of sea-floor flora, the braided ligaments in canary yellow, blue, pink, and purple in Untitled (2 Chains) (2023) double as those same organisms’ chromosomes.
Childress’s evocation of the diagrammatic realm—anatomical, celestial, microbial—is specific to grammar school classrooms and their textbooks’ schematic, brightly-colored illustrations. The artist was an elementary art school teacher, a role that impacted her selection of materials, especially for a previous body of work consisting of crayons melted into molds to form rocks from which viewers made collaborative drawings. Whereas diagrams instruct by presenting seemingly timeless facts for the pupil to absorb, Childress’s abstracted scenes elude labeling and measurement; the show’s title, Fuzzy Logic, refers to logical conclusions that exceed the binary of true or false. Her pedagogy is one of mutability, improvisation, and learning by doing. In this it recalls the approach Josef Albers took in The Interaction of Color (1963): to teach about perception itself and the realization that all knowledge is relative. One well-known exercise from Albers’s book is to make one color look like two by placing a square of the same colored paper against different grounds. The single pink square peeking above the lower margin of Childress’s Untitled (February 1) (2023) and inserting itself into a gridded field of red and peach neighbors might be the remainder of just such an exercise. Perhaps it was interrupted, per the “X” and “O” at top, by other lessons in writing or games of tic-tac-toe. Practice-based crossovers between teaching and making, or between painting and craft, are normalized and made all the more immediate in Childress’s fiber paintings. Alongside peers Samantha Bittman and Julia Bland or precursors Anni Albers, Sheila Pepe, and Harmony Hammond, Childress uses accessible materials to subtly dismantle long-inherited systems of thought.