Lionni work at Berlin gallery

January 13, 2014

Art professor Sylvan Lionni found inspiration for one of his more recent paintings in the unlikely source of a computer database programming language called Structured Query Language.

Lionni’s work “SQL2” was named after the language. It was created as a part of a larger series; each work in the set is designated with a different number.

Sylvan Lionni

Above: Sylvan Lionni

The conceptual influence is embodied structurally within “SQL2,” which shows a large number of patterned rectangles filling the canvas. The artwork is currently on display in an art exhibition in Berlin, along with several diverse works by other American abstract artists, including Joseph Albers, Joe Baer, Michael Heizer, and others.

“One of the great things about this show is that the people of this show are some of the greats of geometric abstraction,” said Lionni. “These are the guys I grew up loving. I get a chance to show next to guys who are incredibly influential to you.”

The art exhibition “highways and byways. together again” at Daimler Contemporary Art Collection consists of American abstract works paired with drawing installations from Swiss artist Nic Hess. Daimler Art Collection, which owns thirteen of Lionni’s works, has hosted this exhibition since Oct. 17. It will run until March 16.

Hess has chosen different works of American abstraction and displays a response, in the form of a drawing installation, corresponding to each work. His response to Lionni’s “SQL2” is a work composed of an organized assemblage of business cards.

This is not the first time Lionni’s artwork has had exposure overseas; his art has been shown in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, and Sydney.

He was hired as a drawing and painting instructor at UO in 2011. In 2012, he had a video installation titled “Bloodstream” at the art department faculty show, “The Long Now,” in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. In March 2014, his work will be exhibited at Kansas, a New York gallery.

Lionni briefly spoke with A&AA his fascination with De Stijl artists and geometric concepts, his show at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and the concept that art is its own raison d'être.


What medium did you use for SQL2?

Acrylic on canvas.

What can you tell me about the exhibition?

Nic Hess is a Swiss artist. … He chose pieces from [the Daimler Art] Collection and made responses. He did all these interventions with different pieces in the show—with my piece, he had business cards next to it. He took a piece from their collection and then made a piece responding to each of the pieces in the show.

I think the unifying element is that this artist, Nic Hess, has this particular kind of sensibility. He wanted to react to a specific kind of work and that fit in with what he wanted to react to and engage with from their collection. It’s all abstraction from the United States from the last sixty or seventy years.

They have thirteen of your works over there. When did they acquire these?

The first painting they bought of mine was … 2004. They purchased them over a span of years.

What is your fascination with geometric concepts?

For me, it was painters like [Piet] Mondrian. Geometric abstraction is the kind of painting I initially fell in love with. It’s been the focus of my work for a long time. There’s a long history of geometry in painting and geometric abstraction. … At the same time, I thought it was impossible for me to make those kinds of paintings because so many people had made them before. Most of the way that I work is finding things that do to me the things that the geometric paintings that I love do to me. I take those real-world things and recontextualize them.

The people of this show are some of the greats of geometric abstraction. Joseph Albers, Jo Baer, Gene Davis, Peter Halley, Michael Heizer, an incredibly influential artist. You talk about the history of geometric abstraction; these are the guys I grew up loving. One of the nice things about this show for me is that I get the chance to show next to guys who are incredibly influential to me.

Another artwork you had was a frame from Stanley Kubrick’s film “The Shining” with Danny Torrance digitally removed, leaving behind the infamous carpet pattern.

I had a big wall painting of it. This was in a gallery in D.C. in 2002.

Kubrick used a lot of red in his films, usually in a foreboding way—the blood, Danny’s clothing, and the bathroom walls. Do you use colors thematically?

No. With [SQL2], the drawing was made in Illustrator and I told it to randomize the colors. The drawing was made digitally but the painting was made by hand. It was all taped off. It was drawn in Illustrator and I had a big stencil cut with a vinyl cutter on the painting. I painted each of the squares by hand and peeled the tape out.

I can’t think of another profession in which the creative output is dissected so extensively. Do you ever get frustrated having to justify everything you create?

I don’t have to justify everything I do as an artist. It may or may not be [scrutinized], but that’s none of my business.

There’s this idea that meaning somehow justifies the existence of art in the world, like this piece of art has meaning, so it’s okay for it to exist. I think that’s a terrible, terrible idea. I’m not really that interested in meaning like that. I think that existence is justified in the world if it can affect a person.

I know that sounds corny, but if you think of a great piece of music by Bach or Beethoven. If I asked you what that piece of music means, you’d have no idea. I don’t know what it means either, but that doesn’t mean it can’t affect me or do something profound to me. I don’t feel the need to justify a piece of art in a world like that.

Lionni’s “SQL2,” acrylic on canvas, is currently on display in Berlin.
Above: Lionni’s “SQL2,” 84” X 62”, acrylic on canvas, is currently on display in Berlin.