Can you can spot the superior lines of a vintage car, a thoroughbred or a designer dress? Have you ever watched the arc of a baseball flying over the fence?
Understanding the power of line in art is not far removed from such ordinary activities. For the most part, it involves little more than sustained looking, which is exactly what “The Linear Link” at the Irvine Fine Arts Center tries to get viewers to do.
Printed lists of questions in this rather fussily didactic exhibit direct viewers to pay attention to the way six California artists use line in a varied group of paintings, sculptures and drawings.
Which is fine, except that line is only part of the story.
One of the distinctive qualities of art is that it resists being tidily labeled and classified. Isolating just one element from art is basically a classroom trick, intended to get students to pay more attention to what the artist is doing.
Still, the approach at least offers viewers specific reasons to scrutinize these vastly different works--ways of becoming involved rather than passive observers.
Judith Foosaner’s small graphite drawings of stems and loops and tight little clusters of lines are blurred records of the passage of her hand over the paper, as altered by deliberate swipes of a fast-moving eraser.
The eraser tracks in the drawings seem to serve much the same purpose as the brush-scrubbing efforts Foosaner applies to her paintings (which are not on view). The Bay Area artist is interested in making marks for their own rhythmic sake, rather than evoking specific imagery. Layering “subtractive” gestures (the erasures) on top of the marks creates another, ghostly trace of the artist’s semi-willed, semi-impulsive movements of the hand.
Recent paintings by Karl Benjamin, a member of the elder generation of Southern California artists that includes the late John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson, are tautly structured, tenderly colored geometric images.
Arrangements of rhomboids that sometimes resemble a row of stage flats viewed at crazily different angles, these interlocking shapes seem to zigzag between two- and three-dimensional existence without coming down firmly on either side. The visual tension this creates, accentuated by the carefully adjusted color ranges and the repetition of similar shapes, accounts for the liveliness of these works.
The seriousness and straightforwardness of Benjamin’s work also has a rather old-fashioned side, reminiscent of sober experiments in American abstract painting during the 1930s and ‘40s, before the advent of Abstract Expressionism.
Jay Johnson, a young artist based in San Diego, also is concerned with geometry, but in the hip, enigmatic-object-meets-retro-chic manner of his generation.
In “Hot Rod,” he paints a long, thin rhomboidal block of wood with a screaming fake red-and-yellow wood-grain pattern. On top of this he arbitrarily drops in a series of painterly black brush trails.
On an untitled black wall-hung sculpture with a vaguely leaflike shape, he lets a pair of linear “creases” create subtle inflections.
Johnson’s “Red Black” consists of four skinny black wood pieces curving down the wall like oversize vertebrae. The red-painted portion of the piece coyly faces the wall, throwing out a faint reddish reflection under the gallery lights.
Tim Alexander, who was graduated from UC Irvine five years ago, makes sculpture that incorporates imagery from technological, biological and architectural spheres. “Circuit” consists of rows of tiny ball bearings built into a three-dimensional schematic. Light glancing off the little spheres helps to give the feeling of flowing energy. (In “Rising,” a miniature skyscraper of ball bearings assembled into clawlike pods stacked on top of each other, the medium doesn’t seem as well suited to the subject.)
Alexander’s “Cryskeleton (Extension)” is a spiky floor piece made of variations on triangular form and covered with a bubbly, gummy brown deposit that has a weirdly organic quality.
Sam Lemly’s work is equally craftsmanlike, but his structures have a more oddball, idiosyncratic personality somewhat akin to the sculpture of H.C. Westermann. Using slim lengths of wood with notch patterns and pencil-point ends, Lemly builds “useful” objects that are unusable (a chair with a prickly seat) or way over-ornamented for their work-a-day use (a ladder that looks like a big interlocking puzzle).
Other pieces of his in the show are miniature chair forms--one covered in neatly wound crossings of black tape, the other made of concrete incongruously dappled with red and green paint.
Meredith Strauss, who studied weaving at Swedish craft schools before earning a master of fine arts degree from UCLA, inserts corner-shaped pieces of wire mesh into thin horizontal lengths of white vinyl tubing (or white cotton cord) to make asymmetric patterns. The vinyl has a slick, Pop look; the cord, which droops and wavers as it makes its journey across the frame, has the fallible, tentative quality of the hand-drawn line.
“The Linear Link” continues through May 31 at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission: free. Information: (714) 552-1018.