Teresa Schmidt, “Ascension,” 2019, acrylic and graphite on panel
Teresa Schmidt, “Ascension,” 2019, acrylic and graphite on panel

With autumn in the air, banter around town inevitably turns to sports. The offensive line, foul line, goal line, betting line. Seems we move toward measuring things on one side or the other of a stripe.

In art, line is a more slippery and amorphous player, a tool that may be formal or personal, straight or snarled, delicate or harsh. The many dimensions of visual expression by artists with a proclivity for linear mark-making are the subject of Defiant Line, the current exhibition at Modern Arts Midtown, which runs through October 25.

This is a rangy group show generally composed of artists seen regularly at MAM, including Littleton Alston, Brian Curling, Catherine Ferguson, Jean Gaudaire-Thor, Thomas Jewell-Vitale, David McLeod, Lana Miller, Gordon Powell, Joe Ruffo, Teresa Schmidt and Michael Tegland.

Lean, elegant and sometimes colorful, the show is thoughtfully organized around not so much a conceptual theme as a range of formal counterpoints — how line, edge, marks and shape serve each artist’s aesthetic. And despite expectations that line=draftsmanship=drawings, the exhibition includes a hefty amount of painting, sculpture and collage as well as works on paper.

Michael Tegland, “Cobb County,” 2019, graphite on birch panel

As might be anticipated, the use of line for some of these artists is about control, defining shape and space, and creating balance. Michael Tegland’s carefully inscribed graphite on black chalkboard-painted birch panels are exemplars of linear refinement. In “Cobb County,” each rhythmic repetition limns organic forms that evoke dense and delicate flora — life flourishing magically out of simple line in a deep monochrome.

In her “Lithic” series of ink and colored pencil drawings, Lana Miller uses line to outline her vertical, henge-like shapes, as well as create tones and shadings to emulate the physical qualities of rock. “Three” isolates a pair of monoliths against a gray background, linked by a slim rectangle of black ink — a spare rendering that nonetheless conveys weight, mass and balance.

David McLeod, “Arrangement with Many Inclusions,” 2014, colored pencil, gouache, graphite and litho crayon on paper

David McLeod prefers using a broad range of drawing materials, among them pencils, graphite sticks, pencil, lithographic crayon and gouache, in works that mediate a space somewhere between drawing and painting. In his compositions on paper, such as “Arrangement with Many Inclusions,” McLeod establishes a ground of precise linear elements, such as a graph-paper grid and orchid drawings, as well as washy rectangles of lightly toned color. This diagrammatic stasis then begins to energize, as he exploits the liquid properties of his media to add counterpoints of movement and density.

Littleton Alston, “Galileo,” 2015, steel and walnut

Utilizing elements of control to yield the expression of energy, Littleton Alston opts for steel to express his inspiration from the Industrial Age when “gesture and intent could be calibrated and shown in wheel and cog.” His pedestal-top sculptures employ graceful lines of steel that change direction at their intersections with small, cylindrical forms, and with titles such as “Galileo,” “Eclipse” and “Stella Luna,” it is not hard to see them describing the celestial paths of stars or satellites.

A similarly scientific feeling is registered by Brian Curling’s flowchart-like “Untitled,” a color reduction woodcut with encaustic on paper. Casual, concentric bullseyes of color are connected with a web of lines. A feeling of buoyancy created by the layering a paper and wax gives the abstract composition an energy at an atomic, aquatic or stellar level.

Teresa Schmidt, “Perspectives No. 2,” 2019, acrylic and graphite on panel

Personal energy is the hallmark of Teresa Schmidt’s work. The line in her abstractions is free, spontaneous and nervous, and her work consists of traditional drawings as well as mixed media panels with both paint and graphite. The edge in works such as “Perspectives No. 2” evokes an underlying energy in nature, in which line that’s especially dense along the bottom third of the piece turns it from a more formal organic abstraction into a space thrumming with impulsive power. This same energy informs “Ascension,” in which bits of matter ascend into a blue sky between parted clouds. The title suggests apotheosis, but it might just as easily be read as an image of decay and dissolution.

The two colorists in the show could not be more different. Thomas Jewell-Vitale is clearly an artist who prefers pushing paint around. The surfaces of his oil on paper paintings are highly physical, densely layered and heavily scraped. Incised lines only occasionally circumscribe shapes or define spatial transitions. His jewel-colored compositions are prismatic, impressionistic scenes suggesting land- and seascapes.

Jean Gaudaire-Thor makes vibrant mixed media collages that are stitched onto canvas or paper. With an eye toward combining splashes of color and pattern, Gaudaire-Thor’s works engage line not only through mark-making but also through cut edges and stitched seams.

Joe Ruffo also approaches line as edge and, rather than scribing lines on paper, creates compositions by creasing paper and applying it to wood panels. His mostly white collages are dimensional, allowing the paper ridges to stand up on the surface like rumpled bedsheets. In “Polar Solitude,” Ruffo plays with contrast rather than color, adding bits of black handmade paper with thin white ciphers to create a banded edge that makes the abstract composition read a bit like the landscape to which the title refers.

Gordon Powell, “Untitled (with 4 colored squares),” 2010, MDF, dyed wood glue, paint and pencil

Gordon Powell’s art also reads like collage, but he fashions painting-like wall reliefs from abutted pieces of wood. His forms are intentionally casual — wood shapes are irregularly squared — and he uses dyed glue to join their seams, allowing it to ooze through the cracks and make painterly lines. In “Untitled (with 4 colored squares),” Powell has created a kind of informal but effective geometric abstraction, painting his MDF forms mostly white with pops of red and yellow and enlivening the surface with ellipses and spots of blue-dyed glue and pencil.

Catherine Ferguson, “Janzen,” 2016, woven steel wire

Primarily a sculptor, Catherine Ferguson has long employed line, silhouette and shadow in service of defining form and space. On view are several of her wire reliefs, in which she knots and weaves thin steel wire into volumetric wall drawings. “Janzen” is a clever hard/soft play on the female form, a favorite theme, as a skirted one-piece bathing suit is suggested by its overall shape. The spirited movement of the filaments’ shadows on the wall enhances both its linear qualities and its whimsicality.

In total, Defiant Line underscores the notion that linearity belongs not just to draftsmen, but is one member of a team with which an artist can play. Score!

Defiant Line is open at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge Street, and runs through October 25. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on First Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m. For further information, contact 402-502-8737 or visit www.modernartsmidtown.com.

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