The mechanics of grammar are the starter set of must-know rules for uniform speaking. They are the basic regulations without which language can be rendered clumsy beyond comprehension. Artist Mike Bray engages with these mechanics through his video, photographic, and sculptural works. At first concerned with the logistics of light and form on a fundamental level, Bray’s works expand to make visible their potential through abstraction. His deconstructed exhibition Light Grammar/Grammar Light at Fourteen30 Contemporary transforms fragmented surfaces into pieces that form a completely new language. This language subverts the hard-and-fast rules for coherency to reveal the beauty in visual stutters and run-on thoughts.
In the entirety of the small exhibition, black forms stand against white ground, with a couple of works that incorporate light or reflective elements. The initially simple declaration of aesthetic is cleverly personified and unapologetic for the choice. Day for Night (2016) comprises four lighting stands that support discs of wood, steel, and aluminum. The discs—some of which are no longer full circles—have been cropped and angled as not to reach their complete, traceable circumference. The forms crowd each other, face to face, leaning in close as though engaged in passionate argument. The imposing structure is the mechanical foundation of Bray’s debate with orderly form. The sculpture is equal parts tidy and incidental, animated and still. It emotes in a way that simple and recognizable shapes usually don’t.
Bray’s digital video, Angles of Refraction, presents a hand tepidly exploring the edges of refracted glass. The repetitive illustration is a frustrated grasping at physical concepts that can’t actually be felt. What is it to witness the precise moment of a metamorphosis as an isolated third party? The slow and curious nature of the exploration, along with the anonymity of the hand, is a questioning of boundaries and the tipping point of transformation. Refraction—the magic of bending—puts to use the power of its medium to disjoint and abstract what we expect to exit the other side. Bray appreciates this suspended moment for its beautifully inconsistent results.
Intersect Theory (2016) is constructed to be an endless loop of visual passageways and reflections. These mechanics are the language of mise en abyme—of mirrors and spaces that go on ad infinitum. Though housed on a modest plinth, Bray’s sculpture encompasses a world’s worth of sight lines, like the view from a solitary house on a hill. Two-way mirrors and thoughtfully placed cutouts manipulate the given light to burrow holes where they don’t in fact exist. A viewer’s reflection stares back, not from a single point, but from many. The skillfully constructed form has not one face, but several. Like Angles of Refraction, Intersect Theory makes a game of the infinite space to be found, given exhaustive attention.
The Necessity to Interfere with Movement (2016) explains itself forthright. The title is an introduction to the beautifully vexing construction of the monochromatic acrylic and neon sculpture. Bulbs of salient, linear fluorescence converge at the center of a landscape of darkly tinted acrylic. The light pulses through a pentagonal cutout, though at an unfavorable angle; the clarity of the bulbs are rendered punchy. Their glow and pointed orientation can suddenly appear confused, twisting in directions unnoticed in its frontal view. The circular cut of the acrylic is poetically reminiscent of an eclipse. Its semi-opaque body serves to obscure one’s view, creating shadow where there is light desperately spilling over edges and between cracks. The work’s surface is a battleground of a metaphorical syzygy.
Blocking Out the Sun (2016) leans against the gallery’s stark interior, imitating the posture of an impossibly cool wallflower. Its powder-coated steel is delicately bent in the manner of caricatured windowpanes. Viewed from some distance, the sculpture appears as the byproduct of a Louise Nevelson affair with line drawing. With curved yet angular edges, the piece is firmly anchored in its compositional proportions while still seeming weightless. One can’t be sure what degree of strength would be required to knock it over, displaying the sort of trickery of materials that an artist of Bray’s caliber lives for.
The exhibition’s deconstructed shapes and splitting of light aren’t a vacant imitation of the formalism that art history knows and loves, but a pop cultural celebration of discovering such simplicity for the first time. One revels in remembering all the things light can do when thoughtfully positioned, including how much sharper white looks against black. Bray’s inherent impulse toward tinkering and constructing language from its bare bones concludes in something unexpectedly elegant. His particular grammar governs aesthetic syntax where the linguistic won’t suffice.
Mike Bray: Light Grammar/Grammar Light is on view at Fourteen30 Contemporary in Portland, Oregon, through March 5, 2016.