Measuring the Infinite: Adrianna Speer at the Firehouse Gallery

Dillon Raborn places Adrianna Speer’s recent works—on view in an exhibition in Baton Rouge—in a lineage of abstract painting and sculpture.

Adrianna Speer, Warmth, 2016. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

For New Orleans-based artist Adrianna Speer, painting has always been a method of measuring her experience of the natural world, and a fascination with the skyline has informed her most recent work, currently on view in “Horizon” at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge’s Firehouse Gallery. Many of Speer’s previous works have been based in the landscape genre, albeit abstracted, relying on the traditional framework that the work of art is a window through which viewers enter a scene. In “Horizon,” she has stripped the very idea of a scene to its spine, honing in on the horizon line and bringing it to the fore as an “active character,” according to the exhibition’s wall text.

This character takes many forms. On canvas, it is a series of marks, or even a textural arrest. These tend to render the horizon not as an imagined space between sky and earth, but as signified by matter and material. Warmth, 2016, is divided midway between flat tones of a warm grey and a muted, browned yellow. True to title, the piece exudes a colorful aura from a centrally located mass reminiscent of Australia’s famous Ayers Rock, its contour filled with a heated, rainbow spectrum. In contrast to this, Glow, 2017, is set against a dark, washed, swampy background. Two-thirds of the way up the composition, a large, irregular ellipse beams forward in gold and silver leaf—a triumphant element which rises out of darkness.

Adrianna Speer, Horizon Line, 2017. Spray paint on panel. Courtesy the artist.

The other half of the show exhibits painted aluminum panels which imply a horizon rather than explicitly render it. Most of these are coated to near-industrial perfection, such as the highly attractive fading of red and orange in These Hills Sing, 2017. This sense of seduction combined with the panels’ play between being paintings and being sculptural objects brings to mind Donald Judd and his Stacks series, which he began in the late 1960s. These Stacks—which consisted of industrially produced boxes hanging on gallery walls, much like Speer’s panels—exemplify the Minimalist drive to achieve the essence of visual experience while leaving as little evidence of the human hand as possible. Speer appears to actively reject this notion, as she interrupts the streamlined aesthetic of many of the panels on view with unapologetic pallette-knife smears of contrasting earth tones. This is the case in Sky/Earth, 2017—one of four artworks unfortunately installed in the hallway adjacent the main gallery, next to the bathrooms and drinking fountains.

One particularly thin panel, measuring 4 by 72 inches and straightforwardly titled Horizon Line, 2017, appears to derive from Barnett Newman in its minimal use of single-direction linework, very similar to the vertical divides of his zip paintings. He once described these as “streaks of light,” like those that appear when squinting while facing a light source. Taking this interpretation, Newman’s zips become exploratory works of limited perspective. Inversely, Speer’s Horizon Line reveals a highly-saturated landscape seen not via obstruction, by blocking out everything else, but by so emphasizing a singular, horizontal element in order to elicit the sublime. The horizon was an archetypical space of the unknown until the third century BCE, when Eratosthenes proved with shadows that our world is curved—a fact reaffirmed much later by the voyages of Christopher Columbus. A recent MFA graduate from Louisiana Tech University, Speer reveals her ambition in her most recent works’ subject-matter and execution, leaving viewers to meditate on humanity’s closest—and furthest—natural formation.

Editor's Note

Adrianna Speer’s “Horizon” is on view through July 27, 2017, at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge’s Firehouse Gallery (427 Laurel Street) in Baton Rouge.