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Abstraction and Reality 

Two solo shows at MOCA examine art styles that are polar opposites

click to enlarge "Twenty Four," acrylic on canvas by Max Estenger, 2007.

Maya Heilman-Hall

"Twenty Four," acrylic on canvas by Max Estenger, 2007.

"Twenty Four" is easily the most joyous work in Max Estenger's retrospective at MOCA Tucson.

As its title suggests, the long horizontal painting, stretching more than 10 feet across a gallery wall, has 24 bands of brilliant color.

Each stripe is beautiful, and each is a different color, with two dozen pigments veering from fire-engine red and canary yellow to more delicate lavender and pink. Marching vertically across the canvas, the stripes are arranged with mathematical precision: each band is twice the width of the band on its left. That means that the first stripe, a tiny screaming orange, is just 3/4 of an inch wide. The white stripe, its neighbor to the right, is 1.5 inches. Next comes a turquoise that's 3 inches wide, followed by a blue-jeans blue that's 6 inches and then the biggest: a foot-wide monster that's 12 inches of bright red. This elegant pattern of small giving way to large repeats three and half more times down the length of the canvas.

This lovely acrylic painting is easy to like, and though it's at the far end of MOCA's Great Hall, it may just be the best starting point to ease into Estenger's more challenging work.

This exhibition, paired with a separate solo show by video artist Nicole Miller, shows just 12 of Estenger's paintings and sculptures and one replica of a New York subway token booth. The collection testifies to Estenger's pursuit of a rigorous, even austere, abstraction since his earliest days as an artist.

The oldest pieces don't bother much with color. "Yellow and White," from 1987, has five canvas panels joined together in a pleasing vertical arrangement. A small square of vivid yellow ochre pops out on the top panel; a stripe in the same hue careens across the bottom panel, but the rest of the panels are painted plain white. Geometry, not color, is what's important here.

Two years later, in 1989, when Estenger made "Red," he very nearly gave up on paint. Sure the piece has four tiny squares painted red, but "Red" is mostly just raw canvas, its beige fibers unstained by either gesso or paint. What really interested the artist was the assemblage of the squares and rectangles of his canvas panels, and the lines between them.

"Twenty Four" turns out to have been a bit of a deviation; made in 2007, it was a rare and "intense painterly experience," Estenger said in a talk in February. More often than not, his pieces are crafted out of the unpainterly materials of metal, wood, sheetrock and spackle. Jutting out from the wall or standing on the floor, they're a cross between painting and sculpture. If they're not as accessible as the colorful "Twenty Four" they have their own elegant beauty.

In his so-called "unpaintings," Estenger experiments with see-through vinyl, stretching the clear material between blocks of wood or canvas, allowing the viewer to peek inside the belly of the work. One of these, "OSHA Green & Orange" from 1994, has seven panels fitted together like pieces of a puzzle. Big at 7.5 feet high and 5 feet wide, it combines raw canvas with stainless steel, polyvinyl on a wood frame and oil enamel colors on stainless steel. The playful green and orange, Estenger noted, pay homage to the workplace warning colors established by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

The most recent works continue his quest for abstraction and simplicity. The 2016 "Red," harking back to its 1989 counterpart, is a huge vertical stela of seven panels, alternating raw canvas with shiny steel. At its center is a single square, painted red.

The 2016 "Booth," constructed specifically for the show, is a surprisingly figurative work. It's a giant box, a life-sized replica in sheetrock of a subway token booth in Brooklyn, where Estenger lives. It even has tiny royal blue door. Yet with its smooth geometries, sleek lines and scant color, it's a cool abstraction, a stripped-down doppelganger that tames the wild cacophony of urban—and subway—life.

Nicole Miller occupies the smaller galleries on the museum's East end, where six of her videos play in a continuous loop. An African-American artist born in 1982 in Tucson, she now lives in Los Angeles. She's a generation younger than Estenger. Her work is not entirely documentary, but in distinct contrast to the older artist, she draws on real lives and real people in her work, using a technique she calls "self-representation."

"Death of a School" is an impressionistic elegy to two TUSD elementary schools—Schumaker and Wrightstown—that were permanently closed down and shuttered.

Her mother worked as a teacher at Schumaker for years, and Miller filmed her in her classroom on the school's last day. The filmmaker catches her mother delivering final lessons to the kids, challenging two young girls to come up with innovative answers besides the ones "that everybody agrees on." The teacher briskly keeps her students on task, even as all of them face the end of world as they know it.

In other passages, elegiac images shot in slo-mo show kids playing in the schoolyard for the last time, whooping in water shot out of hoses by friendly firefighters. Teachers clustered together on the sidelines, bonding with one another for a final time. The sounds of the playground are muted beneath a musical soundtrack that delivers a requiem. Painful frames elsewhere record abandoned rooms scattered with debris and boxes, plywood nailed over school windows, and teachers walking out the door for the last time.

A separate work, "Athens," features powerful soliloquies by African-American teens in LA. In a particularly searing sequence, a girl recounts the murder of her brother before he even got out of high school. Speaking in a remarkably steadfast voice, a blurry picture of her brother on a shelf behind her, the girl recounts the murder itself. She had to do the "hard job" of speaking at the trial of the boys accused of the crime, she said, to let the judge know of the family' grief.

"I had to be telling all my pain in that harsh environment," she said. "I had to be the voice for my family."

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