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Two Approaches to Abstraction: Kizi Spielmann Rose and John Perkins at Studio 21

Published May 20 2022

Two Approaches to Abstraction: Kizi Spielmann Rose and John Perkins at Studio 21

Kizi Spielmann Rose’s dazzling, large-scale, abstract images are full of biomorphic and geometric forms with exciting twists and turns of colour and pattern. John Perkins’ small, abstract sketches are full of frenzied, squiggly lines connected to his emotional state during the pandemic.  Studio 21 Fine Art’s owner Deborah Carver put these two seemingly disparate artists together in an April exhibit in Halifax because they both layer handmade and digital content. 

The artists, who first met at the gallery, share an intuitive approach, a lack of preciousness about their work’s meaning and materials, an interest in sight (though to different ends), a connection to biomorphic abstraction, and a use of repetition and layering. 

But where Spielmann Rose’s work in Hidden Fires is expansive and colourful, Perkins’ is small, gestural, and personal. The counterpoints between these two abstract artists reveal the strength and power in 21st century abstract painting to talk from one soul to another.

Spielmann Rose’s meticulous, labour-intensive process is rooted in the childhood craft of rubbing black pastel over a crayoned surface, then scratching in lines to reveal the colour beneath. He lays oil stick on top of oil pastel over a primed panel and etches in wavy lines with a Bic ballpoint pen.  “It’s a very unstructured approach. I don’t work off sketches.”

The works are magical trips into a world of infinite, undulating lines with a spatial tug of war among pattern, colour and shape. Shafts of rainbow light dance above an earthy surface of triangles; wavy white lines flow on top of tighter wavy lines. The eye struggles happily to take in all the detail and beauty.

Spielmann Rose is a fan of Josef Albers, op artist Bridget Riley, and artists “fascinated by the science that underpins our experience of art,” he says. “I’ve become more interested in vision and light and the operation of sight.”

However, while light operates in waves his art is not a direct metaphor for light. “That’s something I see after the fact; it’s not an intentional connection.”

To make his four masterful, large paintings, he photographed a small painting, digitally printed it in multiple copies and collaged them onto panels in a grid of repeating pattern. Using oil sticks and pastels, he intuitively created dynamic, spatially complex paintings full of colour and pattern in both a hard-edged geometry and biomorphic abstraction which he likes “for its connection to the world.”

“There’s a move in them. Any time a form or line crosses a boundary from the undergirding pattern it changes colour. That was a way to cohere the painting.” Fond of Fauvist colour, Art Deco ornamentation and “Baroque exuberance,” Spielmann Rose creates an explosion of jagged, green-edged, triangular reds and yellows in Fright. Dizzying, vertical runnels of ever-changing colour, predominantly reds and blues, do battle with squares and gentle waves of pale rust and purple in Smite.

Smite, (2020), 74 x 82,oil and pastel on paper mounted on panel. (courtesy Studio 21 Fine Art)

The Halifax-based artist, a graduate of The University of Ottawa (MFA) and NSCAD University (BFA), likes to disrupt his own systems and thinks distinctions between styles of abstraction and between abstraction and figuration have broken down. “It all becomes grist for the mill.”

The grist for John Perkins” mill in A Plague Upon This Howling, titled from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is the storm of COVID-19 and its shake-up of “normal life.” Forced  to cancel a photographic portrait project and a trip to Japan, he sought human connection by gathering with friends at a Tatamagouche coffee shop every Saturday to make art. They worked with Dollar Store materials, including $4 sketchbooks, markers, paints, and whiteout.  The idea was to make do with what’s at hand in the same way people turned to making bread.

Plague 19, (2020-22), 5.5 x 8.25, mixed media on paper. (courtesy Studio 21 Fine Art)

“For me we were working on a personal response to a societal event. There was fear of illness, fear of the unknown, fear of, ‘Are we changed forever by this?’ What points of reference will we have remaining?”

He likens his weekly practice to an electrocardiogram which depicts a heart’s function in lines on paper. “I tried to tap into how I was feeling that day about what was going on and what had been going on in the previous week.”

A Plague Upon This Howling features twenty-one Plague sketches that are dense and chaotic in frantic lines and viral, organic forms. Some look like storms at sea beneath a sky; others are a seething mass of squiggles that could be the chaos of a disease or the confusion of a mind.

Perkins framed his “low brow art” in open pizza boxes from a pizzeria next door to the coffee shop. This is a wry comment on the idea of take-out food—so popular during the pandemic—and a play on the idea of what COVID-19 took out from the world.

He turned to digital technology for the Viral Load digital prints that involve layering a sketch with an electron microscopic image of the COVID-19 virus taken from the first reported case in the United States. “I digitally insert the virus into the host,” he says. “The conceit was what happens to the body when it is invaded by a virus that takes over and mutates and commandeers; how does that work visually?”

Perkins creates an exquisite tension in these prints between the beauty of soft colours and swirling shapes with the ugliness of a virus that changed and sometimes ended lives. 

Perkins, who recently returned to Halifax after a twelve-year residency in San Miguel de Allende, works in  abstraction to evoke thought and feeling in viewers without specific reference points. 

“I studied perception and physics in university, but I have moved away from that to how does seeing affect you, not so much the act of seeing but the result of it? How does this make you feel? Does the work evoke curiosity, a kind of understanding, is it a challenge, is it a turn-off?”

For artists dealing with space in their work, Perkins and Spielmann Rose are both challenged by limitations in physical space. Perkins’ home is too small to properly hang his sketches as a wall-long diary of imagery.  Spielmann Rose’s apartment is too small a studio.  “Creating these required me to rely on friends to store them and to work outside in the summer. I’d love the opportunity to do it again.”

About the Author

Elissa Barnard is a freelance arts journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For 35 years she was an arts and entertainment writer for the Chronicle Herald specializing in coverage of the visual arts and theatre. She has a BA in English with honours from Dalhousie University and studied creative writing at the University of Windsor, Windsor, ON. She received a silver Atlantic Journalism Award in 2015 for her article on artist Mary Pratt for the Herald Magazine.