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The Subtle Mastery of Tomma Abts

This painter’s quiet show at the Art Institute of Chicago rewards careful looking.

By Arts & Culture

Tomma Abts. Inte, 2013. Private collection, Cologne. Courtesy of greengrassi, London. © Tomma Abts.

Imagine having the skills to depict optical illusions of simple objects, from an enlarged microscopic organism to a scratched patch of leather, all with paint alone. In her eponymous show currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Tomma Abts accomplishes this by using crisp outlines and shades resembling wallpaper color swatches on thirty distinct 19.8 x 15 inch canvases. The three-dimensionality of these paintings engulfs the viewer with subtle visual tricks.

Neatly fencing the room, Abts’ paintings are placed at the same height and distance. In the vastness of the Modern Wing galleries, so often filled with immense sculptures, large-format photography, and endless installations, her relatively small canvases demand attention with their uniformity. It is this consistency that makes you want to pull out your phone to take a picture, only to be awed at how the simple display intensifies what’s happening in each work. Abts’ pieces first appear minuscule despite their bold colors. Like a row of pushpins would on a large, empty cork board, they stand out against the starkness of the gallery walls. But viewed from the middle of the room, Abts’ shading and highlights become clear, showing dimension in every shape and line such that each canvas feels like a portal to another world.

Tomma Abts. Weie, 2017. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg. Courtesy of greengrassi, London. © Tomma Abts.

In Weie, what looks like stiff pieces of ribbon in nude, crimson, and green overlap each other on a dark orange gradient. Painted just last year, she took advantage of the negative space in this work, demonstrating her ability to craft shadows. This careful attention to craft is present in her other works, including several that use waves and arcs that resemble the cells of an organism.

In InteAbts uses masking tape  to form crisp outlines. But it’s atypical in its monotone color scheme, featuring shades of brown that emphasize the texture of the oil and acrylic paint, which make the canvas appear leathery. The surface seems to invite the viewer to touch it. The gallery lights hit the raised crevices and bands of paint, making the texture much more evident in a photograph than they are to the naked eye.

Tomma Abts. Fimme, 2013. Collection of Sascha S. Bauer. Courtesy of greengrassi, London. © Tomma Abts.

Another canvas, Fimme, has red, teal, and white for each ring of a target. This shape is disrupted by boomerang-like forms, some solid and some striped with orange and seafoam green. From farther away, each broken piece seems to hold its own place in space, the parts overlapping each other like a scrapbook collage. This is the result of seamless shading and highlighting. The darker shades of the same colors (muted versions of red, teal, orange, green, and white) read like natural shadows to our vision. Abts carefully painted them to accurately portray the three dimensional objects we are used to seeing.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 17, 2019 in galleries 182-184 in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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