Aberrant Abstraction, the odd title of an exhibition in the first-floor galleries of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, suggests the possibility of redrawing or expanding the boundaries of abstract art. It's a strange ambition because "abstraction," as a category, is already broadly encompassing. How can you reinterpret a classification that so easily assimilates any nonrepresentational work? And what exactly constitutes an "aberrant" abstraction? A realistic painting of a log cabin, maybe? There are no paintings of cabins here, and it would be tough to characterize any of the exhibited work as anything but abstract art.
The show's troublemaking title occupies the back of your mind, occasionally making the appraisal of individual pieces problematic. Example: New York assemblage artist Agathe Snow exhibits a grouping of unconventional collages in which everyday objects are arranged around large aluminum-hoop armatures. It's true drama from minutiae. Snow's "Our Boy's Dream" consists of a jumble of boy stuff — hard hats, guns, trucks, action figures, and inflatable balls that interestingly turn out to be promotional giveaways from the movie Tropic Thunder — interspersed with unboyish, pastel-colored, plastic clamshells. You recognize all of the constituent objects, so does the abstraction emerge from their combination? Or does it come from their presentation, from seeing these things hang unexpectedly in open space rather than on the gallery walls? The sum doesn't exactly challenge the definition of abstraction. If it isn't inside the abstract expressionism club, it could, at the very least, charm its way past the doorman.
Similarly, Brooklyn artist Chris Martin's transformation of recognizable objects can be surprising, but it never strays outside the generous categorical perimeter of abstract art. In "Sweet Dreams," Martin mounts pillows to a canvas and paints them in the bright Necco Wafers palette that he favors for this exhibit. The result is startling in much the same way as Jeff Koons' famous chrome rabbit but less remote (and also less gaudy); the humanizing seams of his process are apparent in the obvious brushstrokes, the paint's variable thickness and cavalier application.
"First Box Painting," a cousin of "Sweet Dreams," explores the same concept with a grouping of seven small cardboard boxes, angles askew, attached to the surface of the canvas and covered — and sometimes partly filled — with bright primary paint. By displaying his technique in all of its stapled, messy obviousness, Martin renders transparent both his creative process and his own exploration of his work's meaning. But if these pieces are aberrations, exactly what norm are they violating?
Here's why this is such a difficult question: Artists have always used a particular visual language consisting of certain grammatical elements — among which are line, shape, geometry, color and compositional technique — to convey ideas about, for instance, a girl with a pearl earring. But in the 20th century, some artists began using this same visual language to create images that didn't refer specifically to the physical world. Given that abstract art is the set of all images in which information has been reduced to those grammatical elements, you're still left with a literal infinity of possibilities.
For example, in the best of her exhibited pieces, Brooklyn abstract painter Keltie Ferris implies information systems or visual networks that never actually resolve into discernible messages. Ferris layers patterns of sprayed oil-paint dots over the complicated ambiguities of color that serve as the backdrops of her compositions. Patterns in her "Madame Butterfly" suggest a complex LED readout against a field of acrylic haze. "Prince Blanket" might be a city at night, seen from an airplane, but the painting will neither confirm nor disconfirm your brain's attempt to suss out the signal from the noise. The note of mystery in her work complements the unanswered questions posed by Snow and Martin, real pleasures unaddressed by the exhibit's stated intent.
Cordy Ryman's site-specific installation "Green Wave" may be the most straightforward work here. Consisting of dozens of rough-hewn, knotty two-by-fours painted green and leaned upright against the wall, each at a slightly different angle, the whole piece measures out an undulating waveform that winds around the room. Given the minimal nature of the work — boards leaning against a wall — Ryman's piece is arguably unconventional. Maybe it's even "aberrant" when judged against the criteria of particular schools of abstraction. But whatever else it is, "Green Wave" serves as a visual comment about space, color, materiality — and seemingly nothing else. It's a very unrebellious definition of abstract art.