For Jacob Ouillette (b. 1974) color is not so much a preoccupation as it is a meditation, a liberating temporal event meant to unfold within modified formal structures and processes of intuitive experimentation. His large, squirming color-grid paintings are comprised of distinct but uniform rectangular brushstrokes that, though they might curve slightly or thin out to one side, never touch. Set against a neutral ground of grey or off-white, each stroke boasts a lush, lively color ranging from the neon to the jewel-toned to the subdued. Each palette is diverse but limited; according to the artist, they are not pre-planned, but arise spontaneously, creating a sort of visceral unity that at once celebrates and interrogates the materiality of the paint, the relative nature of each hue.
The work included in “Brushstroke Paintings” (all 2011), now up at Nancy Margolis, is appropriately autumnal, ruled by shades of orange, that crisp king among colors. Endless iterations of ochre and tangerine are paired with yellows, browns and greens, and accented dramatically by segments of blue or purple. Phoenix—with its warm and bustling kaleidoscope of 2-inch cells—is particularly dazzling in the light of late afternoon. In pieces like Wits End and Bold as Love, a few broad bright strokes made with a 10-inch brush direct the viewer’s attention not only to specific color relationships but also to the incredible physical moment of organic artistic creation. Ouillette also explores this dynamic in the earth-toned Six Strokes, a single series of wood-block monoprints on rag paper. There is a certain intimacy in seeing the texture of each bristle, in the deliberateness of each stroke, which imbues them with the gravity one encounters in calligraphy or in images of the cave paintings at Lascaux.
The major obstacle to be overcome when looking at this work, however, is the way in which it points to so many things outside of itself. Ouillette is indebted to the color grids of painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter and Jennifer Bartlett. His improvisational methods are drawn straight from his interest in jazz and blues and his color play, whether intentionally or not, stems directly from Josef Albers’s color theory. Yet somehow, Ouillette’s work manages to be anything but old hat. Instead, it is delightfully refreshing, earnest in a way that only the love child of minimalistic formal structures and impressionistic joie de vivre could be. One might say it is a visual equivalent of a sonnet, or a contemporary variation on a well-known theme. Ouillette’s work finds freedom in structure, finds truth in the simultaneous reach towards and rejection of mathematical perfection. His images retain the identity, the shape, of the grid, but loosen it beautifully, like a strangling shoelace coming undone.