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For Xylor Jane, numbers are both a conceptual frame and a formal device. The objective universality of numbers and mathematics (two plus two will always equal four) guides the structure of many of her tightly composed abstractions in Back Rub / Foot Rub, her recent show at Parrasch Heijnen. But because the conceptual bases and organizing principles of the paintings are not always accessible to the viewer, the works take on an otherworldly, bewitching power. The labor involved in Jane’s physical, meditative act of painting is apparent. A sense of magical healing—what poet and writer Eileen Myles has called “medicine”1—is embedded in the enigmatic patterns.
Jane begins each painting with a system that she sets in motion and then lets it run its course (through endless hours of meditative paint application). While the results of each work may camouflage its origin, some kind of order is always apparent. Dissent (26 Nesting Prime Palindromes) (all works 2020) is a wood panel painted black and divided into 26 rows. Each row features a string of numbers, beginning with a single “2”, that grows into an inverted pyramid as rows of numerals are symmetrically added. Every row acts as a palindrome, meaning it reads the same backward and forward. Mirrored across a central axis, the “2” remains the constant center point in each row. The numbers are not painted but shaped from negative space and outlined by small white, raised dots—a pointillist technique Jane often employs—approximating the look of digital numerals. The precision of this mechanical technique separates the painting from the artist’s hand, but also brings attention to the painstaking labor that goes into this work (Jane wears special magnifying glasses similar to a jeweler’s loupe while she paints). According to the press release, while painting this work, Jane saw a resemblance between the stark white and black shape that emerges from the stacked numbers and the collar worn by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—from a seemingly random string of numbers a familiar and charged portrait appears.
Other paintings have similarly personal connections, though they may not be apparent to the viewer gazing at the beguiling final forms. Walking to Your House (Counting by Threes) is an almost-square canvas covered in shades of pink dots. Green, blue, and yellow dot-matrix-like numerals are laid out in neat columns. On their own, their referent is a mystery, but given the title, they read like the record of an action, the mundane but meaningful act of traveling to the nearby home of a friend or lover. The work takes on an air of longing within our era of isolation.
Moon Dragon is a delicate grid of black, white, and gray dots on an orange-brown background, the grayscale shades each tied to different letters. The work takes its title from the names of the artist’s cats (Jane used gradations in hue to covertly spell out names like Apple and Crouton). Here, too, personal connection is shrouded beneath a mathematical order that allows the painting—untethered from its inspiration—to take on a life of its own, resembling a crude digital printout or early modernist design exercise. Jane’s work shares a visual affinity with other artists who use seriality to produce graphic, entrancing works, like Channa Horwitz, though, with their bright primary and secondary colors, and structures connected to musical scores, Horwitz’s works have a clear inner logic that Jane’s canvases fully evade. While Horwitz’s works offer harmonious clarity, Jane’s veer instead toward a lurid complexity, the differing results illustrating the breadth of potential within apparently rigid structures.
In 6th Order Magic Square for Apocalypse, Jane maps a numerical grid on top of a pastel background of angular, prismatic shapes. When added up, the numbers in each row, column, and diagonal of Jane’s magic square are equal, similar to a sudoku puzzle. It’s enchanting to think that a magical solution to annihilation could be found in a special combination of numbers, colors, and forms, like an alchemical elixir. This type of occult power can be felt in the dour colors of Third Spell for POTUS, which features a dark background of rectangles out of which the number “46” emerges, as if casting a spell for progressive political action aimed at the current president.
In her serially structured paintings, Xylor Jane produces physical objects that span the personal and universal, the logical and the magical. Far from being detached from real life, the works are very much of this world, with personal references translated into form through painstaking, meditative labor. As viewers, it’s easy to lose ourselves in their atomized dots, inexplicable strings of numbers, and unusual color juxtapositions. Attempts to piece together the magic threads remain elusive, despite the works’ foundational logic. In a world that often seems to be hurtling toward collapse, Jane’s handmade order provides a sense of tranquil logic. Hers is not a repressive order—a tamping down of creative energy—but an open-ended structure, suggesting limitless possibilities, blueprints for a new and expansive world.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, KCET Artbound, The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Terremoto, Artsy, frieze, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 24.