Chris Gentile's paintings at Main Art defend order against the onslaught of disarray. 

Order, Disorder

The world of the man-made is composed of attenuations and subdivisions of circles and squares. These are orthographic building blocks that supply us with our tenuous belief in regulation and satisfy our vanity over nature itself. Any wandering line that breaks from order may find itself described as "untrue."

Chris Gentile, in his show of gouache paintings at Main Art, intimates that this relationship to order breaks down pretty rapidly without the tools: the straight edges, compasses, computers and the like. We might calculate formulas and successfully apply them roundly, but if Gentile's demonstrated efforts at geometric fluency are any indication (and he's pretty good at repeating himself), we can't maintain it unaided by our contrivances.

Gentile's art is not the sort to put anyone on immediate notice, though. His installation is quietly filled with seven midsized works in quiet white frames. Inside most of the frames are geometric patterns executed in soft pastel gouaches that have gone slightly awry. They are so unobtrusive that one could easily come and go from the show unscathed by the artist's findings.

I went over to the guest log to see what the art world had to say. "Nice work, Chris" was the prevailing sentiment. Only one comment complained that the work did not speak to her.

I also had to look hard and wait for the kick. After a time, things began to enter my thinking: amusing but also poignant things like Saul Steinberg drawings, or homemade roadside signs hawking cured firewood or offering cheap kittens to a good home. The signs always reveal the calligrapher's great optimism that the idea to be spelled out will nicely fit the width of the board, a belief that almost never proves true. Instead, the message's letters are inclined to become smaller and more closely knit and to angle up or down as the right side of the board closes in on the writer. Steinberg played with this fragile brand of optimism in his own cartoon fashion for many years in the pages of the New Yorker.

Optimism and failure, control and fate, math and hazard, truth and fiction: all things that are not really opposites but still manage to contradict, foil and otherwise embellish each other. These things I began to comprehend in Gentile's airy, irregular tesselations.

One isolated grouping of works in the show is a bit more pictorial. Arranged in a grid, these simple semiotic images suggest an odd glossary of forms, a cryptic map of the artist's world. Gentile's language diversifies briefly in this piece before returning to finish proving his experiment. By then, it may be evident to viewers that one margin of Gentile's gouache paintings seems to disclose where the artist begins his organized pattern of simple forms. Carefully manufactured diamond or oval shapes queue up perfectly along this starting line. If these paintings can be imagined as gameboards, the repeating shapes are the defenders of order against the onslaught of disarray that is nature's own favorite strategy. Gentile indicates the necessary folly of our mission on earth as nature's optimistic adversaries, with rulers in hand. I think he has graphed the probability that we are predisposed to forfeit the game to our opponent in the end. But, optimistically speaking, it could be worse.

"Untitled 2001," Chris Gentile's gouache works on paper, is on display at Main Art Gallery, 1537 W. Main St., through Feb. 26. 355-6151


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