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Alex Contino's Paintings at Big Orbit Gallery
by Jack Foran
What Becomes an Artwork Most?
For Aristotle, existence, being, wasn’t the big problem, nor nonexistence, nonbeing. The big problem was how you get from nonbeing to being, the problem of becoming. To explain which in philosophical terms—and in his mind both physical and metaphysical terms—he invented four “causes,” namely, material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause, which was the purpose or end for which a thing came into being.
Alex Contino’s paintings currently on display at the Big Orbit Gallery are about becoming. The works look half-formed. Matter making itself into something. But what is a good question. Becoming what? But a central question, as becoming was the central question for the philosopher.
And a complex question, becoming what implying how and why and even who. And so having a complex answer. For to speak precisely, that is, in Aristotelean terms precisely, not matter making itself into something, but primary matter—paint in this case—on which the painter—the efficient cause—imposes form, for some end. Such as to represent, or illustrate, or enact, a physical or metaphysical situation. Such as the act of becoming. The art process is a metaphor for the act of becoming. The art process in general, but particularly Contino’s art process.
Contino’s imagery look a little like what we might imagine primary matter to look like if it looked like anything. (Paint is not primary matter in Aristotelean terms, but can stand in for it in this artistic representation of the becoming process.) But it could only begin to look like something if it begins to be formed, informed, have form imposed on it. That’s what Contino’s imagery looks like. Primary matter beginning to be informed.
The figures—if they can be called figures—hover between human and animal and inanimate. A little like cloud forms, but with occasional unmistakable body parts, or body part suggestions, legs, torsos, heads, or inanimate forms, bottles, beakers. A work called Picking and Choosing features slumberous proto-human figures and what could be trees in the near distance and hills in the far distance. One called Nobody Will Notice features what could be human figures among what could be rocks, boulders. Or maybe rocks, boulders, among human forms. Effective camouflage either way.
The formal indeterminacy entails some frustration effect for the observer, but the positive quality that these forms are like stem cells, of multiple possibilities of actualization, potential in different directions. For observer and artist alike. In the work called Deeply Lost, the artist seems to depict his own struggle to realize (in the sense of comprehend) the presented forms, even as the forms themselves struggle to realize (in the sense of become) what they are to become.
A work called You and Me presents what could be portions of two elephants. In the context, it is somehow reminiscent of the ancient Indian story about several blind men trying to discover by feel—in one case of a leg, in another the trunk, another the tail, another a tusk—what is this thing, or perhaps multiple things. A story about formal indeterminacy from another direction. About multiplicity of possible meanings or interpretations of evidence, depending on the evidence, but also on the inevitable subjective approach of the individual observer.
The Alex Contino exhibit continues through November 10.
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