Over a decade ago, during a discussion about where contemporary art was headed, I commented that, since the two-dimensional picture plane had been fractured, painting and printmaking had gone nowhere genuinely avant-garde. In those days, when magazines were focusing on the work of performance and digital-projection artists, I believed the only way forward was to extend work into the third dimension, even the fourth.
But having seen the new exhibitions by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year Delanie Jenkins and Emerging Artist of the Year Adam Grossi, I realize just how inaccurate my views were.
The memory of my ill-considered declaration came to me as I stood in one of PCA's second-floor galleries, the one containing Jenkins' limited-edition relief etchings and embosses on the finely milled art paper known as Hahnemuhle. This series, Traces of Absorption, consists of common paper-towel patterns reproduced in reliefs, which hang against walls as white as the paper inside each frame. Collectively, the works have a powerful opacity that seems to encompass the auditory level, absorbing every noise in the room with an expanding visual silence. Jenkins has achieved a multi-sensory experience through entirely visual, two-dimensional means.
Equally arresting is "Radix," a first-floor installation comprised of desiccated, delicately toned radish roots attached to a wall on thin wire stakes in waxing and waning concentrations that vaguely resemble islands and continents. Here is one of Jenkins' enduring themes: the tension between beauty and decay. Some of the work's power also derives from its intangible elements: Its sculptural texture is enhanced by shadows each root casts.
In the first floor's rear galleries, Jenkins -- who is studio-arts department chair at the University of Pittsburgh -- explores the notion of decay's more abstract beauty. With "Untitled (from the Clementine Series)", she has sewn together canvas-based inkjet prints of Clementine orange peels. The resulting soft sculptures, so reminiscent of Claes Oldenberg, colonize the gallery floor in various stages of deflating decomposition. On the surrounding walls hang framed screen prints of flattened peels, whose graphic import vaguely recalls the dynamic abstractions of painter Robert Motherwell.
This possible homage to foregoing influences is the thematic link between Jenkins' show and that of Emerging Artist of the Year Adam Grossi. For Grossi, the retrospective references seem obvious: Throughout, there are glimpses of David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein and Alex Katz.
Grossi, a Carnegie Mellon alum (and former City Paper contributor) who is now a University of Illinois graduate student, has filled half the PCA's second-floor galleries with Dimensions For Vanishing Points. Granted, the works sometimes spill over their two-dimensional boundaries onto the walls, becoming site-specific paintings that punctuate, complement and move the eye among the panels. His works adhere to the traditionally flat picture plane; yet Grossi creates cerebral pieces that must be carefully considered, even savored.
For instance, while there is an immediate gratification in the saturated color and arresting faces in the acrylic and collage work "Collaborative Vision," the genius of the obscure communication between the two men depicted warrants closer examination. One man produces a puff of cigarette smoke in which an image of pristine woodland appears. From the mouth of his younger companion a paved road winds outward, suggesting the forest's eventual bisection (and implied desecration, as Grossi has painted a golden halo above the trees). Is this a business deal ... or perhaps a jointly desired vision of the future? Grossi is delightfully elliptical.
Grossi's work goes beyond formalist concerns of balance, color and draftsmanship -- attaining, through his exploration of intellectual concepts, the hallowed fourth dimension. In his artist's statement, Grossi says that he is exploring "various systems: color systems, mapping systems, systems for promoting projections of beauty, desire and information." He explains that his current work is not orderly, but rather the result of collisions between multiple notions and objectives. But if his stylistic approach varies, his wry wit and appropriation of symbolic imagery remain constant.
Grossi, like Lichtenstein, is a shrewd manipulator of cultural ephemera, as seen in works like the tongue-in-cheek "King's Moat," which employs multiple King Vitaman cereal boxes to create a figurative body of water at the painting's center. The sly, 20-foot fabric and acrylic-on-paper multi-piece "Driving Directions for Six Ornamental Surfaces" looks, at first glance, like part of the animated Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. This correlation becomes all the more ironic when one notices that the source material is pharmaceutical advertisements for "mood enhancers." The abstracted representations of smiling figures are positioned within a web of connected lines that -- like a road map -- offer paths to, if not happiness itself, then decorative promotional examples of it.
While Jenkins manifests a distinct versatility, embarking on both two-dimensional and three-dimensional explorations driven by concept and aesthetics, Grossi achieves a similarly dynamic experience in two dimensions alone. In the end, both demonstrate the illuminating potential of creative ingenuity and cerebral breadth, and make it clear that the future of the two-dimensional picture plane remains unwritten.
Artist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year shows continue through Nov. 4. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org