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The first room in Jim DeFrance’s posthumous exhibition at STARS showcases three swerving, curvy paintings (all acrylic on veneer, from 1990). In clockwise order, there is Baleen (gray whale), Rainbow, and Mask 3 (blue whale). Baleen’s grey tone is constantly shifting—although it looks matte in images, it actually has a strange sheen to it in person. Rainbow, by contrast, is a swirling kaleidoscopic romp, and Mask’s cerulean slats shimmer the way the sea is imagined on film but rarely appears in reality. Perhaps that’s the point. Here in Los Angeles, nothing is as it seems, or as we believe it to be from years of draining our brains via sights and screens.
One nearby work, on the right-hand wall, though equally charming, takes on a different kind of shiftiness: a Neo-Geo painting that preceded the Reagan-era movement by about 15 years. This shaped painting, a pseudo-Christmas-themed optical exercise titled Dazzler (1965, also acrylic on veneer), is truly dazzling. Covered in green and red striping, it resembles a crooked mask—specifically those vintage hockey masks sported by both goalies and Jason Voorhees alike. Skewed slits (actual voids within the near-center part of the piece) stand in for eyes, and jagged, staggering compositional deviations distract us from where said eyes would probably pierce.
Once you pass by a sand-colored curtain that splits this entry room from another, you encounter two more stunning paintings with slitted surfaces: both rectangular, one black (Saint Cloud, 1970), and one white (White #3, 1966). Saint Cloud features evenly spaced slots cut across its front side and a neon geometric painting on its other side, which is only hinted at through the muted bursts of color and light projected through the many openings. (Upon visiting the gallery’s website, I was delighted to learn that documentation of the verso is available there—a hidden field of brightly colored stacked rectangles.) White #3 has a similarly minimal feel to it, with pastel colors scantily speckled all over its seemingly barren surface.
Each of the paintings on display still has both an elegant and experimental vibe to them, just as they likely did when they were first produced and presented. They were executed with a certain type of precision—one that relishes in the romance of the medium while still avoiding the often saccharine nature of abstraction. While walking through the two rooms of this exhibition, I couldn’t help but once again think of the dead-end debate over the multiple deaths of painting. When paintings like DeFrance’s continue to hit this sweet spot of beauty, materiality, and intellect decades after their making, how can the form and practice possibly die or be dead?
Jim DeFrance: Slots, Whales & Corvus runs from September 11–October 30, 2021 at STARS (1659 N. El Centro Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90028).