By Brianna Bass
“Things having no apparent connection with mankind’s daily needs - the mystery enveloping all mathematical problems; the inexplicability of space - space that can stagger us by beginning on one side and ending in a completely changed aspect on the other, which somehow manages to remain that self same side; the remoteness or nearness of infinity - infinity which may be found doubling back from the far horizon to present itself to us as immediately at hand; limitations without boundaries; disjunctive and disparate multiplicities constituting coherent and unified entities; identical shapes rendered wholly diverse by the merest inflection; fields of attraction that fluctuate in strength; or, again, the square in all its robust solidity; parallel lines that intersect; straight lines untroubled by any relativity and ellipses which form straight lines at every point of their curves - can yet be fraught with the greatest moment.”
-Max Bill, The Mathematical Approach in Contemporary Art
In September of 2018, “Destill” opened in the Silo Room at Track one in Nashville, TN. The exhibition was a survey of contemporary non-objective and minimalist work by a fusion of Southeastern & European artists. Curated by John Tallman and presented by the Committee of new forms, the show included: Alex McClurg, Amanda Brazier, Arvid Boecker, Ashley Layendecker, Brian Edmonds, Brianna Bass, Clary Stolte, Eric Cagley, Hans Schmitt-Matzen, Henrieete Van t’Hoog, Iemke van Dijk, Jeffrey Courtland Jones, John Tallman, Kayla Rumpp, Matt Feyld, Mel DeWees, Richard Feaster, Suzan Shutan, and Werner Windisch. With its playful title, “Destill” references the Dutch movement, “De Stijl,” which sought to find universality by distilling art to its most essential forms, decidedly removing art’s responsibility to reference the material world, trace surges of emotion, or catalogue human narratives. The playful appropriation and alteration of this term suggests the urgency for similar values in the practices of today’s artists.
In his writings on non-objective art, Max Bill poetically describes the phenomena of mathematics and physics playing out unseen in space. He argues that, while not in direct reference to nature, artists’ employment of parallel lines, primordial blobs, disembodied color, structural form, evinces a deeper realization of the mysteries of the physical universe: “though these evocations might seem only the phantasmagorical figments of the artist’s inward vision they are, notwithstanding, the projections of latent forces which are unconsciously at grips with every day of our lives.” Eschewing language and representation puts another music of the spheres at work, bringing forth forms that channel the physicality of the cosmos and therefore have real bearing in the universal mind.
Through this lens, many of the aesthetic forms and practices employed by non-objective artists can be analysed in the context of spiritual reference and figuraton. The artists of Destill materialize a hidden space that exists both inwardly and outwardly, a communicable universality. By engaging primordial visualizations of form, building sanctuary in their practices, and exercising meditative discipline, the artists produce work which is “the expression of the human spirit, destined for the human spirit.”
Many of the artists engage a kind of primordial approach to materializing forms. Fueled by a fascination with materials, John Tallman creates humorous works that abstain from narrative, while maintaining a powerful tactile presence. Combining surprising color with a full range of weight, sharpness, and texture, each form asserts itself as an iteration of an absolute truth, presenting no information as grounds for its denial.
Hans Schmitt-Matzen’s coiling neon sculptures utilize light in order to convey the significance of illegible scribbles. He works in collaboration with his sons, whose actions are unhindered by the codes of art to create “sublime and unruly” marks, crystallizing unencumbered thought. By casting these marks in neon tubing, the works signify origin and grand finale at once, hence Schmitt-Matzen’s frequent citation of the speed of light as a material of figuraton in itself.
In Brian Edmonds’ work, dark backgrounds and bright primary colors invite a sense of both the cosmological and the categorical. “You are looking thru an opening, window, or door way into a space, a space that can be read in many different ways. An empty room, the night sky, or looking off into the landscape.'“ He relies on planes and formal indicators to imply a space that may shift at any moment, giving the viewer a chance to leap from surface to surface in a field of shifting construction.
Making art is often an innately spiritual practice. It facilitates an understanding of the self, seeks to unveil universal truths, demands discipline and solitude, requires playfulness and faith, and by learning the language of art we enter a community that validates and understands that language. Among the major functions of seeking spiritual space in art is utilizing the work itself to find shelter. Through her practice of gathering natural pigments from her region, Amanda Brazier finds connection with the earth. She meditatively grinds pigments into paint and assembles her detailed linear constructions, channeling ancient ways of building shelter, to create what she deems a sanctuary. “I hope my work offers a sense of quiet to the viewer, amidst so much noise. A space to be still. [...] Dust is a material of creation in many ancient stories. I am participating in some small way in that creation, hoping somehow to build a kind of sacred space within my work.”
Similarly using structure to find sacred space, Ashley Layendecker utilizes rigid formal components like grids, boxes, and “X”s to create shimmering, beveled surfaces of stark color & value juxtapositions. She limits herself to black and white, with the careful addition of colors which call to her. In her newest work, purple and yellow symbolize her relationship with someone she recently lost. In her constructed spaces, which are at times visceral and fragmented, she creates softness, light, and peace.
DeWees cites a relationship with his own mortality as a driving force for dedication, sustaining a practice as if it is the only thing lived for. His sober wooden sculptures are an exercise in finding vulnerability by the negation of excess decision making, denying the ego. These powerful motivations show themselves in his careful constructions, which while fortified and decided, appear to be alive and expanding with breath. 
The duplicity of presence and absence in non-objective work evokes a great power, allowing the viewer to perceive the impossible binary of existence and non-existence. Iemke van Dijk’s floor drawings literally mark an absence and presence simultaneously, as various shapes are laid on the floor and baking soda carefully shaken around the shape before it is removed. By employing these planes, she calls upon the viewer to reconfigure our perception of objects in our everyday lives. “The shapes are circles and squares seen from a perspective. In everyday life we have often squares and circles around us which we see as ovals and trapeziums, etc., without realizing it. Our mindset makes us see a glass thus a circle because we know it is a circular shape. I hope to trigger a different mindset in which it is not about what is something or what is the story. I think you could call this different state a meditative state.”
Yoella Razili’s work taps into a similar questioning of familiar forms, channeling figurative essences without allowing the form to be recognized. In its color and softness, thickness and heaviness, the work activates urgency in the viewer to comprehend what is at the edge of recognition. “In my work, I try to reach a balance of forces. I aim to get a resolution of tension between contradicting surfaces, weights, scale, and color [...] It is tangible, perhaps recognizable and affirming, but yet new, pure, and magical.”
Matt Feyld’s paintings appear to be austere, but are in fact exceedingly generous, with his final works being composed of 30 to 60 coats of paint. “I don’t want my work to allude to a place, feeling, or thought that I may have had. I want them to be left as open ended as possible. I make the work, and then I try to move out of the way; I want the experience to be that of the viewer’s.” This way of thinking implies that the work itself is imbued with a spirit, through discipline and extreme care it is given a living essence that can stir an observer who may not know what they are seeing.
The phenomenal aspect of non-objective art is that with less on display, there is not less to see and experience, but more. With signifiers reduced to mere form, the world of the work and its matrix are opened up for examination: each flaw in the surface, one’s reflection in the work, the pieces whispering to the architecture, shape and color standing on the edge of memory, threatening to evoke an unfamiliar word for a familiar feeling. The work refracts attention around the room, deep into the piece itself, and back into the depths of the viewer’s consciousness.