Peak and Flow (Review)

Fritz Chesnut's abstract paintings ooze West Coast vibes in Country Club exhibit

Critic's Pick

Fritz Chesnut apparently was California dreamin’ during his 11 years in New York.

The 37-year-old artist (who grew up in Santa Barbara) is living in L.A. now, and his new abstract paintings radiate a definite West Coast vibe. Pacific waves crash. Malibu mudslides ooze.

But the appeal of the Californian’s Peak and Flow is nearly coast-to-coast. In a first for the galleries, Country Club’s Oakley and Los Angeles locations chose to present the exhibition concurrently — different pieces from the same series. The art is on view locally through May 29.

Chesnut doesn't use a brush to create these works. Instead he drips, pours and sprays paint upon a canvas on the ground, then tilts and turns the surface to achieve the desired effect. The process sounds like Jackson Pollock’s, but Chesnut’s paintings don’t have the dense and chaotic feeling of the late artist’s works.

Chesnut’s abstracts are more composed than Pollock’s, yet still fluid. Some are minimalist. Chestnut might use just one color and not try to cover every bit of the canvas. In “Solid to Liquid,” a vapor-like stream of orange paint simply trails off the edge and the viewer’s mind travels with it to another place.

Chesnut’s place — California — is a land of surfing and psychedelia. Redwoods and wildfires. Starry nights in the desert and mudslides on the coast. Fleeting fame and laid-back attitudes.

Paint mimics the ocean in “Cannonball” and “Liquid Explosion.” An observer can almost feel the cool drops, taste the saltwater and hear the splashes while studying the artist’s shades of white, black, gray and denim blue.

Because Chesnut’s art evokes sound, it’s fitting that one work is titled “Onomatopoeia” (pictured above). Turquoise, lavender, pink and lava-like red waves swirl in a thunderous surf. The small canvas (14-by-24 inches) seemingly can't contain the volume of the water, color or sound. It feels as if it won’t be long until the viewer’s ears bleed the same crimson shade as that in the painting.

It was appropriate, too, that the opening reception in late April was a cacophony of sounds and sights, with a little Hollywood thrown in. Cincinnati’s hipsters steadily flowed in to the Country Club’s loft, their chatter quickly drowned out the music. All the while, a stiffly moving bulldog worked the crowd, accepting pats and belly rubs. And there was even a TV star: Molly Shannon, formerly of Saturday Night Live, is Chesnut’s wife.

Entertainers and fame were the subjects of Chesnut’s earlier works, and three are shown alongside Peak and Flow. In a charcoal drawing and two photo-realistic paintings, the artist captures the moments of ecstasy and epiphany that happen when either performing or viewing art. Faces are frozen in excitement and wonder.

At first, these portraits seem far removed from the abstracts on the other side of the wall. But while the content is different, the abstracts are “metaphors for the sense of euphoria” in those earlier works, Chesnut says. Both collections capture defining "snapshot moments" — or peaks — whether they occur at a concert, in the great outdoors or in the mind. In the next instant, the song will be over, the tide will have ebbed or the star (in the headlines or in the heavens) will have faded.

Chesnut’s big “Nothing” (48-by-60 inches) wants to say something about the stars. A DayGlo pink galaxy of splattered paint twinkles against silvery-black clouds. But it’s up to the viewer to decide if there’s nothing else left to see here. One gallery patron points out to a friend the bodies that she can make out in the shadows. Are Chesnut’s heavenly objects on the cusp of forming something bigger, or are we watching them die out?

The beauty of abstracts is that, like (California) dreams, they are open to multiple interpretations. Chesnut’s “Reinvention,” with its vertical streaks of black, brown and white, suggests a mudslide. But pass by the painting again, especially after viewing his outer-space art, and you might think a UFO is hovering, casting its spooky glow over a stand of California redwoods.

Chesnut said he appreciates the open starkness of the Country Club loft in Oakley and the opportunity to view his works from a distance as well as up-close. Even so, an observer probably shouldn’t try to read too much into his abstracts. A couple of faint reddish-orange streams in the otherwise black-and-white “Money Shot” might suggest energy, blood or light — but the color is there, Chesnut says, just because he thought the work still needed something.

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

PEAK AND FLOW is on view at Country Club through May 29. Get show and gallery details here.

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