mark vinci | phoenix artist - where landscaped abstraction collides with modernism in the Arizona urban desert  

by Peter Frank
Los Angeles, August 2001


Is all American art about the American landscape? It can certainly seem so; the natural vastness and variety of the United States has always kept its residents and its visitors alike in thrall, and its artists reflect this immense, vivid sense of American space whether they’re painting narratives or monochrome surfaces. In particular, the process of moving west seems to heighten this preoccupation with American space, whether the artists so preoccupied are Europeans – Rothko, Gorky, De Kooning – moving west to this side of the pond or Americans – Corbett, McLaughlin, Lundeberg – making their way beyond the Mississippi. Even West Coast natives – Diebenkorn, Hultberg, Calcagno – reflect powerfully, even metaphysically, on the vistas of their youth.

Mark Vinci consciously oriented his abstraction to landscape space even before he left the East Coast for Arizona. Once he settled in Phoenix, however, Vinci’s art came quickly to reflect the conditions of an urban oasis in the middle of a desert, with its dramatic natural qualities, man-made structures, and inherent contradictions. Not the least of those qualities is the condition of rapid lateral movement, of speed and its attendant perception of the landscape as dynamic and temporal. This condition is one in which most Westerners find themselves frequently, and often constantly. And Vinci’s recent paintings, with their multiple striations, their forceful play of orthogonals pushing back towards a far-distant perspectival node, and their emphatic multiple horizontals swinging wildly, embody this condition with the same frequency.

Vinci paints these factors with an Abstract Expressionist bravado, but he controls his compositions tightly, determining contrapuntal rhythms that give his acrylics a pulse foreign even to the expansive calligraphies of Franz Kline, whose powerful brushwork and landscape- and architecture-like imagery do otherwise directly prefigure Vinci’s own. Their assertive descriptions of space and their highly conscious conjurations of motion suggest that Vinci’s paintings revive not only Abstract Expressionism but the more distant yet no less relevant modernist vision of Futurism.

Both 20th-century movements were themselves so broadly disseminated and interpreted that those earmarks of theirs that recur in Vinci’s work conflate easily, and yet jarringly, with other elements – most notably with Vinci’s lush, and surprisingly dark, palette. In their deep, shadowy richness his colors cohere persuasively with his compositional slashes and stratifications. They would seem, actually, to make more sense in the context of pure non-objective painting than they would in the evocation of a desert landscape. There is warmth to these colors, but surprisingly little heat and even less sun. Rather, they suggest a landscape space swathed in a waning crepuscular light, or even plunged in the profound blue-blackness of night. Certain of the panels, by contrast, convey the brittle, windswept dampness of a desert downpour – a summertime gullywasher, perhaps – or the grayness of a winter drizzle. (Perhaps the recollection of an eastern snowfall creeps in here.) AAt times, the color takes on a positively hallucinatory edge, manifesting not so much the image of desert heat as its effect on perception. More than one painting can make the viewer feel as if the brain’s blood may be reaching the boiling point.
But, then, Vinci’s oeuvre overall has a meta-realistic vibrancy to it, the feeling of a mirage or of something stared at so long that it begins to dissolve into the air around it. Is it heightened perception, clarified by the hot, dry climate? Or is it skewed perception, the febrile sight fried eyeballs afford? It is some of both of these, a touch of desert Surrealism (modulating, in modernist terms, between the Futurism and Abstract Expressionism that we understand precurse Vinci’s art). But, more, it is an all-American apprehension of the space around him that prompts Vinci to amplify – not modify, not qualify, but amplify – the landscapes he sees into the panels he paints. The space Mark Vinci re-composes as elegantly ferocious abstractions is not just the American desert; it is the American place.