Contingency Plan

Courtesy of Peregrine Program

“A larger view” hangs on the off-white walls of the Peregrine Program, an art gallery on the western edge of Chinatown. Rectangular shapes compose a visual symphony, curious not because of the inherent orderliness of the straight lines and 90-degree angles, but because of its arbitrary arrangement. The stark presence of industrial materials like pewter and graphite contrasts with the vibrant colors and shades that decorate the panel, ensuring that every form can be seen even from a distance. A touch of phosphorescent pigment gives the work a reflective sheen that shifts with the viewer’s gaze, provoking an inquisitive double-take.

That impulse to take a second look is at the heart of Joan Waltemath’s “Contingencies” exhibit. Contingency involves both the whimsies of chance and the connection between things. In both senses of the word, contingency originates the moment Waltemath begins a new piece of art. Using math as her basis, Waltemath begins every project by programming a three-dimensional cube on her computer, where she locates a point that will give her a rectangle that adheres to the Golden Ratio. Once she draws a perfect rectangle, Waltemath releases the project from her control, allowing the program to draw horizontal and vertical lines based on the Fibonacci Sequence across the virtual cube. As soon as the artist decides the computer program has drawn enough lines, she lays the grid as the foundation of her work and intuitively marks forms she believes will make her artwork more impactful.

Formerly a professor at The Cooper Union in New York, Waltemath’s treatment of space and lines emerges from intellectual experimentation that combines both hard science and instinct. At first, Waltemath’s style seems to mimic late De Stijl compositions by Mondrian and van Doesburg. But a closer look reveals that her art is in fact highly nuanced–it is clear that Waltemath has her own ideas about how to use color, medium, and form in order to emphasize space.

Waltemath plays with texture to give her pieces more depth–literally and figuratively–using a wide range of materials, including Khadi paper, egg tempera, and metals. The artist’s close attention to materials contributes to the subtle beauty of “Dinwoody I,” an 80.5-inch-tall work made up of a huge rectangle that appears completely black from far away. Up close, though, different shades of graphite suddenly emerge and form dark valleys that run throughout the piece.

Because of the reflective nature of the materials, every work looks different at different points of the day. Waltemath also chooses her materials so that the viewer’s visual understanding of the work can change the moment he or she walks from one side of the room to the other. This creates a dynamic subject-object relationship, inspiring viewers to question their understanding of Waltemath’s art. In addition, Peregrine Program curator Edmund Chia arranged the pieces so that they bounce off of one another creating what Chia terms a “formal connection” between the individual pieces. Whether by connecting a line from one artwork to another or determining which colors complement each other, Waltemath and Chia strive to encourage viewers to examine space within the individual pieces and in the gallery itself.

An average person probably spends a mere two or three seconds looking at a painting, yet in her exhibit, Waltemath argues that taking time to absorb detail is fundamental to experiencing art. In a fast-paced world that feels as though there is never enough time, “Contingencies” creates a realm in which the viewer’s sense of temporal reference slows to a near halt.

Peregrine Program, 500 W Cermak Rd #727. Through May 14. Viewing by appointment. Send all queries to Edmund Chia via