Some artists spend years developing a distinctive style, only to walk away from it once they've found it. Think of the late Philip Guston, who infamously abandoned abstract expressionism in favor of a cartoonish, lowbrow style, much to the dismay of many of his fans. Here in the Northwest, two artists who pioneered unique and instantly recognizable techniques, G. Lewis Clevenger and Brenden Clenaghen, join in a two-artist show this month at Pulliam Gallery in which both men evolve their styles by turning their backs on the very techniques that put them on the map.
For his part, Clevenger spent the better part of the 2000s creating rectilinear abstractions of selectively built-up and excavated oil paint. There was a rigorous precision to these compositions, which never diverted from perpendicularity. As the decade progressed, the artist flirted with biomorphic curves, but the sophistication of the surfaces remained constant. Today, in a new series called Hancock Street Paintings, the straightedge planes and excavated layering are gone. Works such as Colonial Modernism and Jump Start are still geometric, but the lines are imperfect and childlike, the colors pure, unworked and non-overlapping. Instead of looking machine-made, they seem alarmingly human.
The same is true for Clenaghen's new series, Oil Paintings. Once known for iconic, whimsical compositions composed of liquid-plastic beads, the artist now essays a style remarkable for its unremarkability. In pieces like Ruin, he pares painting down to its essentials, counterposing horizontal and vertical brushstrokes in the same color, allowing texture to speak with minimalist simplicity. The palette is subdued, the imagery largely inscrutable.
Both artists have moved toward a self-conscious naiveté, and the results will not be to the tastes of everyone who appreciated their older work. But both men's strategies seem sincere, well-considered and organic, not contrived as a capitulation to art-world fashions. An earnest insouciance has replaced the arch refinement of yesteryear's techniques, as if these artists were divesting themselves of the illusion of perfection, stretching toward a stylization of reality more flawed but ultimately more intriguing.
SEE IT: G. Lewis Clevenger and Brenden Clenaghen are at Pulliam Gallery, 929 NW Flanders St., 228-6665. 11 am-5:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, through Dec. 29.