OVER THE PAST three decades, Sheldon Berlyn's painting have covered a lot of artistic ground. His work in the '50s was a rough-textured abstract expressionism with typical abstract expressionist space -- abrupt and shifting, with ambiguities about what is in front of what.
The '60s saw a relaxation of vigorous painterly methods in canvases that suggested vague landscape spaces. Then, in the '70s, flat, geometric paintings appeared (only a few are in this part of the show, installed in the hallway). In the late '70s and early '80s, Berlyn worked briefly with patterned abstraction. These were regimented, thin-spaced paintings, the most decorative the artist has produced.
In the past few years he moved on to assemblage/relief made up of various kinds of found materials set in heaped-up fields of cement. The cement, lending these works an inordinate heaviness, is treated just as though it were pigment and successfully imitates the dynamics of brushwork.
These works confirm Berlin's ongoing interest in the effects of paint. They are bluntly conceived paintings (how could they be otherwise, with their sculptural bulk?) and they have an air of stubborn resolution about them.
"Red Kite" (1987) is the one painting in the show to test a free-flying virtuosity. This is a bright, hyperactive work verging on emotional abandon. The reliefs that follow seem almost a corrective to this kind of painterly showmanship. Working in cement slows the errant hand.
Berlyn had early set himself the problem of how to get the substance and weight of the real object and still maintain a thoroughgoing abstract space. Paintings such as "Blue Triangle Incised" (1978) have an insistent textural presence but remain within the realm of flat painting. The counterpoint to this heavy substance is, surprisingly, nuance.
In the reliefs, this contrast between painting-as-object and suggestions of painterly nuance become exaggerated to the point of caricature. The paint, which would otherwise be wispy veils of color, is here sprayed into gargantuan convolutions of cement.
Berlyn is tackling a difficult problem with the reliefs. He attempts to recondition abstract space -- again, that of the abstract expressionism -- by presenting space as tangible and aggressively three-dimensional.
Berlyn stoutly refuses to allow any of his found materials the feel of their former existence. An extreme example is "Yellow Relief/Assemblage," where a piece of culvert pipe, assaulted with a flood of vermilion and blue paint, completely loses its identity. Heaps of ochre-colored cement finish the job, swirling around the pipe like the world's thickest sludge.
By these extravagant means Berlyn tries to turn abstract tradition inside out. The illusion of slippery, oiled landscape that happens in many gestural abstraction is here frozen, caught in an unforgiving clot of troweled cement.
The trouble with these reliefs is that they are caricatures of common art ideas but will not admit as much. They have a dead-serious tone that argues that they should be viewed strictly within the tradition of "high art" abstraction. The entire history of junk sculpture as a commentary on society (i.e. Dada, Rauschenberg) is sidestepped.
Then why use these materials at all? Why not build artistic effects by conventional artistic means, if it is all going to come down to a painting specifically based on relationships of shape and color?
The installation of the reliefs is also problematic. To support their great weight, flat, blocklike supports are placed under each work, looking very much like a compressed pedestal. It doesn't work visually or conceptually. The very definition of relief -- projection from a wall -- is circumvented. It is as though the works are shadow sculptures with their true in-the-round character hidden in the wall itself.
This is especially damaging to Berlyn's work. The projections of metal and ceramic are precisely exaggerations of old-fashioned picture space, literalizations of this space. If they are going to work they must exist cleanly on a wall and then seem to erupt, suddenly and emphatically, out into the gallery space like an uninvited guest.
Sheldon Berlyn: Paintings and Reliefs, 1958-1990
The second exhibition in a two-part retrospective by this Buffalo artist.
Poetry/Rare Books Collection, 420 Capen Hall, University at Buffalo North Campus, through Jan. 31.