Clayton Colvin

AL, Birmingham

at beta pictoris


Alabama native Clayton Colvin (b. 1976) has been courting spatial disasters for the past decade. All 10 of the medium- size abstract paintings in his second solo exhibition at beta pictoris, “Sewing Up the Sea,” reflect a naked search for new answers to old questions. Each painting seems to reinvent the rules of pictorial organization from scratch, relying on the shakiest of scaffolding to achieve a distinctive effect.

Quiet, until quiet falls (2012) presents red and bright pink acrylic splotches arranged in a rough checkerboard overlaid with an imprecise ladder of wispy, horizontal lines in forest green. The checkerboard lines appear either to converge at the top of the picture, or-if one infers the rules of Renaissance perspective-to recess imperfectly toward a high, shallow horizon line. In actuality, the painting is based on a skirt belonging to the artist’s daughter, an exercise in representation translated into a problem of pictorial space.

At the opposite end of the gallery, Faded Photograph (2013) hints at the glitchy imagery of a scrambled television signal. Skewed rectangles of yellow and maroon pierce a field of grubby cerulean, as brittle passages of pink, mauve, cream and greenish ocher cells interrupt large swaths of the composition in a dysfunctional, dissolving grid. Unlike the gradually receding plane of Quiet, Faded Photograph is marked by frontally oriented and partial scrims, each providing a glimpse of the next. The tide will break in on itself (2013) pits several spatial schemes against one another: a battleground of nebulous orange hues in deep space, overlaid with a screen of gray bars and wayward perspective lines, all glimpsed through the breach in an opaque white wall.

In the end, Colvin refuses to resolve the problems he sets up into a singular, coherent system, a strategy that keeps the paintings fresh and mysterious. As if to underscore his constant improvisation, Colvin’s brushstrokes are typically naive- and raw-looking, his contrasting colors unintegrated. About Bill Jensen—a painter’s painter like Colvin—artist Brian Dupont once wrote, “His work is easy to respect, but difficult to love.” The same might be said of Colvin’s work, which requires the viewer to follow the artist’s process of building up each painting from a new set of constraints.

A line of abstractionists from Theo van Doesburg to Bridget Riley held the utopian belief that the successful systemization of pictorial space could somehow equate with an ordering of psychological and social experience. Colvin’s work reveals no such faith, but instead a very contemporary imperative to re-create the world anew every time a painting is undertaken.