One of the sensations conveyed by Christopher Deeton’s richly allusive yet strictly controlled paintings is that of a gradual unfolding. Limiting himself for this show to just two colors—a velvety black and a cayenne-pepper red—the New York-based Deeton created bilaterally symmetrical compositions that seem to open up before you and then envelop you from both sides. Black cactuslike forms rise from the bottom of the paintings while other more slender shapes in black paint suggestive of tendrils swerve out to right and left. Threadlike drips of paint hang from some of these branching elements, as well as from most of the wider, gradually curving frondlike forms that unfurl toward the edges. The drips evoke gestural abstraction; the smoothness of contour and fluidity of line reveal pouring as Deeton’s favored technique.
The horizontal canvases (Deeton alternates between large vertical and horizontal formats) can suggest a jungle or swamp viewed through a wide-angle lens, and the symmetry, with its botanical associations, reinforces this effect. There’s an almost gothic creepiness to some of the paintings, but also an engagement with the history of decorative patterning, from Rococo ornament to Art Nouveau design. Yet these paintings clearly pulsate with primitive force, ultimately feeling a lot closer to a Maori tattoo than to a Hector Guimard decorative flourish.
Deeton’s reliance on pouring, a process-oriented method, rather than brushwork suggests that the botanical imagery was discovered by the behavior of the acrylic paint rather than through any prior intention. In any case, these are clearly not landscape-inspired abstractions, a fact driven home by the lurid artificiality of the red-and-black palette. Some ink drawings also on view had almost no plantlike motifs, which suggests that Deeton’s style of painting is full of other possibilities.
Deeton is grappling directly with the legacy of Morris Louis, in particular the “Unfurled” paintings. Over the last dozen years, there have been any number of artists who have engaged Color Field painting, but Deeton is one of the few to do so without falling into superficial citation. If the poured symmetrical forms link Deeton to Louis, his use of stark symmetrical images evokes Warhol’s Rorschach paintings of the mid-1980s. At times Deeton’s work can also recall Expressionist woodcuts, and lurking in the background (at least for this viewer) are Norman Bluhm’s intensely symmetrical paintings of the 1980s and ’90s. I look forward to one day seeing Deeton’s work hang alongside paintings by such illustrious predecessors.