At Almine Rech, Justin Adian’s Playful Paintings Pack Serious Formal Punch

Justin Adian’s paintings are a bit like an art world candy store, serving up puffy shapes and bright colors for weary eyes. In “Waltz,” his latest solo show at Almine Rech, the New York-based artist brings his signature bulbous canvases—and a touch of humor to the normally serious genre of abstraction—to Paris. 

  • Justin Adian, "Waltz," at Almine Rech Gallery, Paris. Courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech Gallery. Photo by Rebecca Fanuele. 

It’s tough not to think of the golden days of ’60s minimalism when looking at Adian’s works, whose shaped canvases often recall Ellsworth Kelly or Frank Stella (Adian has named both as influences). But unlike those ’60s behemoths, Adian’s paintings feel more playful. Instead of Kelly’s intense primary colors, for instance, Adian favors lighter pastels like a cotton candy pink or a seafoam green. The minimalists often articulated their views in declarative absolutes, treating abstraction as a political cause. Adian, for his part, seems less interested in making large points about abstract art than he is in exploring the simple pleasures of color and form.

To make the works that balloon from the walls of Almine Rech, Adian wrapped canvas over pieces of foam. This unusual process (most canvases are stretched taut over wooden supports) results in charmingly imperfect forms, where buckling and warping are welcomed as lively formal elements. When Adian employs curves, like in Wayfaring (2015), for instance, sides are bumpy instead of smooth. This wobbliness, like that of a hand-drawn line, imbues the works with personality. It often feels as though these paintings are struggling to maintain their shape, perhaps in the throes of figuring out whether they are painting or sculpture, abstract or representational.

  • Justin Adian, "Waltz," at Almine Rech Gallery, Paris. Courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech Gallery. Photo by Rebecca Fanuele. 

Humor seems to be integral to Adian’s practice, and many of his pieces come across like blunt jokes, with titles adding a hint of narrative to the abstract compositions. In Tipt (2015), a yellow square threatens to teeter off a grey triangle. And in Nuptuals (2015), two skinny blue lines limply graze two white lines, like a sad attempt at marriage between two colors.

But it would be wrong to think that Adian is simply a comedian. As playful as they are, his paintings reveal a serious engagement with color theory and composition. Unexpected colors and forms come together in uncanny and enthralling arrangements—and it’s that ability that makes you want to stay Adian’s paintings long after you’ve gotten their punchline.

—Andrew Wagner

Waltz” is on view at Almine Rech, Paris, Jan. 9–Feb. 27, 2016.

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