As the name implies, the most recent iteration of The Mission Projects, The Residence, is a residential exhibition space in the impressive, light-filled, high-rise apartment of Jennifer Andrade and Sebastian Campos. Grouped around the stairs that lead to the second floor and loft hallway are Cole Pierce’s twenty acrylic-on-canvas paintings made between 2018 and 2023. Together, they comprise “Counterbalance,” which is the artist’s eighth solo show and the second exhibition mounted at The Residence location.
Tape, paint, peel, repeat. For over a decade, using an array of templates, stencils and masking techniques, Pierce has been painting layered patterns of geometric and curvilinear shapes onto invisible yet ever-present grids.
Masking is a process by which an artist prevents paint from being applied to a given area. After the stencil is removed or the tape peeled away, the shape of the mask is revealed in its positive or negative form. In the way Pierce employs this technique, these forms function as noise or artifacts in a signal that activate a gestalt. Our minds piece together shapes that aren’t there (circles, wave forms, S-curves, squares) and sense tonal and color gradients (light to dark, cool to warm) that make subtle transitions underneath, and occasionally cut through, all the interference.
In “268 (Glance Route),” countless circles of different sizes intersect each other at irregular intervals on a grid. The curling shard-like shapes that result from these intersections are indigo, turquoise, phthalo green and what appears to be every shade in between. The overall effect looks like the world’s most complicated Venn diagram. Or, they can remind one of looking through a kaleidoscope. Refract and contort an image enough and what are you left with? Color and light. Infinitely rearrangeable shapes. They can lead one to reflect upon other ways of seeing, preconceived notions, thin membranes, systems of thought, that distort our vision.
Sometimes, portions of his paintings appear to move, to vibrate, but it would be a mistake to think of Pierce’s work as simply derivative of 1960s Op art. Indeed, the meaning located in his process, as well as his use of the grid and repetition, both point to some indebtedness to so-called Process-based art and Minimalism of the same decade.
What always puzzles me about Pierce’s paintings, and what I think is crucial to understanding them, is the tension—incongruity, perhaps—between his curious patterns, the magic eye-like optical sensations, what he calls, “an investigation into the phenomenon of vision,” and his methodical process that produces such richly layered, tactile surfaces. This tension is perhaps best illustrated in some of his most densely layered canvases like “239 (Sunset Structure),” wherein dusk-colored paint is stacked thick like so many stickers on a dive bar’s bathroom wall, or in works like “221 (Parallel Conclusions)” in which acrylic fringe, looking very much like the plastic that it is, and what otherwise might be described as excess paint, is left to hang loose off the edges of the canvas.
Paintings never exist in a register that is purely two dimensional. Unlike most geometric abstractions that become less interesting the closer you get to them, Pierce’s paintings can reward, if not befuddle, in a good way, upon scrutiny. They live somewhere in the shallow space between surface and image. As I lean in to trace the slightly raised edges that turn a myriad of sinuous shapes into minor reliefs, and recall the orderly process of their creation, it occurs to me that tension is just another word for counterbalance and might just be the point.