In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, the late writer-philosopher Iris Murdoch discusses the human desire for harmony and order -- not just in abstract terms, but in the realm of the visible and tangible. Unity and organization, Murdoch wrote, offer the mind a reassuring sense of purpose and certainty.
In Space of Resignation, at ModernFormations Gallery, Pittsburgh artists Jamie Adams, Brett Davis and Rob Katkowski purposely play with discord and ambiguity to explore the sense of discomfort they trigger. The exhibition statement declares that the exhibited works require viewers to "resign [themselves] to the strange and palpable space ..."
This is particularly evident in Adams' screen prints, which are filled with the primary-colored Ben-day dots that make up the images in comic books and Lichtenstein paintings. The oversized dots manifest their own brand of irresolution by denying the automatic blending that creates secondary colors and three-dimensionality. With "We tried to make it work," Adams depicts a Tyrannosaurus rex in both a screen print and a slide-puzzle which viewers are asked to work. The mind reels as it is confronted with bringing order to the chaos of shapes and colors in the slide-puzzle. This discomfort is exacerbated when the visitor completes an area and realizes that it must be disorganized to resolve the puzzle's other parts.
Painter Rob Katkowski's work, meanwhile, has the chromatic exuberance of British painter Howard Hodgkin, but with a greater architectural sensibility. With his oil on canvas "Emersion 5," Katkowski builds an illusory perspective depth by stacking colors that alternately project and recede. But where there seems to be anarchic experimentation in this "Emersion" series, there are also controls: color fields that bleed with evidence of underlying, occasionally discordant hues that have razor-straight edges. And, while the horizonless, multiple perspectives disorient, they also captivate: Each canvas' inner conflicts of color and perspective are exquisite and command viewer attention.
The same is true of Brett Davis, who declares a painting to be "a relentless study with no promises, no ideals, and no answers." His statement suggests that painting is essentially unable to satisfy the human desire for resolution of any kind. What his paintings do offer is the beauty and disquiet that often reside in the unfathomable. In the non-objective "Elephant Island #2," orange, yellow and red color planes project in seemingly divergent directions from a dark background. These central forms -- fractured and floating -- eventually seem to create a menacing, skull-like shape. "Elephant Island #3" reveals exposed linen that lies, taut and textured like reptilian skin, beside thick impastos that gleam under the gallery lights.
With Space of Resignation, Adams, Davis and Katkowski point up our instinctive need for the comforts of harmony and symmetry. At the same time, however, they present the aesthetics of chaos (albeit a "chaos" we recognize to be under the control of the artists). Ultimately, finding beauty in disarray seems an essential life lesson, since disorder so often appears as the natural end of all earthly things.
Space of Resignation continues through May 30. Modern Formations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-362-0274 or www.modernformations.com