Abstract painting

Abstract Painting with a Passion for Controlled Violence: A Critique of Stanley Dean Edwards at Oliva Gallery

Installation view, Stanley Dean Edwards at Oliva Gallery


Maybe it’s just that with the change of season I have football on my mind, but this spectacle of eighteen abstract acrylic paintings is like Sunday afternoon television. On a surface as flat as a grill, towering, lithe rectangles like linemen crash into each other as a brilliant band of red or a streak of blue occasionally sails over the carnage like a downstream pass. It’s controlled violence, where every canvas, like every melee play, demonstrates extraordinary athleticism and improvisation.

It is also all too evident that a set of rules and limits have been established and scrupulously followed. This is the difference between Stanley Dean Edwards (b. 1941) and some of the pioneers of abstract expression exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. No orthogonal panel could contain the energy of Ed Clark (1926-2019), so he pierced the frame to release it. And rather than expressing himself with a limited set of shapes and ways to fill them, Willem de Kooning (1904 -1997) expands his visual vocabulary with each brushstroke. Stanley Edwards is different. Its focus is not heroic self-expression, but rather a catalog of the “Yin and Yang of the human psyche,” as might also be found in the I Ching. There is even a certain resemblance between the stacks of rectangles in his paintings and the stacks of horizontal lines in the I Ching hexagrams.

Stanley Dean Edwards at the Oliva Gallery

There is a lot of spirit in this work, but it can hardly be called spiritual. It embodies everyday conflicts, it does not transcend them. The scale of the paintings does not overwhelm the viewer or invite them into a miniature world of enchantment. There is a factual quality about them. Some areas are bright and delightful, while others are eerie and depressing. There is a surprising beauty and there is a brutal ugliness. There’s no anger, there’s no love – nothing personal, but nothing boring. When things come together, they do so in conflict, but keep pulling towards the center, because they just can’t help themselves.

Hairy who? were six of Edwards’ classmates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his work from the mid-sixties is in the collection of the Smithsonian and the Art Institute of Chicago. We are not far from the theatrical and absurd surrealism of Art Green. It turns out that Chicago collectors rave about the wacky alienation of teenagers, and the mainstream of Chicago art has continued down that path. Edwards went in a very different direction, which might explain why his work is less well known, despite being equally well done and mostly bright. His attitude is more awe than humor, and his subject is the universe, not himself. Yet the direct, earthy and energetic qualities of his work seem so regional. Take down the Chicago Bears! (Chris Miller)

Stanley Dean Edwards: An Abstract Universe, on view at Oliva Gallery, 3816 West Armitage, through October 2.