Ready for his close-up

Lynch focuses in on patterns in his works

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2010

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PORTLAND, Maine — Frederick Lynch, a Maine abstract painter of some acclaim, has refocused his work in the last few years, homing in and elaborating on single sections extracted from his large patterned paintings. It’s a surprising shift, moving from entire systems to individual units, and it allows for subtleties he could never achieve before.

Any one of the paintings in “Division and Discovery: Recent Work by Frederick Lynch’’ at the Portland Museum of Art pulls you in with its variety and detail. Just large enough, at 80 by 64 inches, to feel enveloping, and teeming with small, cell-like sections that suggest communities of interdependent organisms, the paintings rely on burgeoning repetition and kaleidoscopic pattern to mesmerize. They recall the 1970s pattern paintings of Tony Robbin or the intricacy of Islamic mosaics, only decidedly and purposefully less perfect.

Lynch builds his patterns by hand, so they are delightfully irregular. He starts with a 120-degree angle and divides the picture plane up into increasingly smaller sections. You can see that “Division 159’’ is clearly trisected near the center like a peace sign. Each third bustles with segments built out of gray-blue borders filled in with white and black interiors, which in turn often contain centers striped with beige and red.

Like each of Lynch’s canvases, “Division 159’’ maintains a satisfying tension between order and the threat of impending chaos. Order comes with the repetition, but these paintings seem on the verge of losing control as shapes expand and contract, cluster and collide. Playing different elements off one another, Lynch also makes the viewer uncertain of the figure/ground relationship: Are those red-and-beige stripes the background, or part of the whole mass of linked segments crawling over the canvas? What about the occasional patches of flat tan?

Several canvases suggest that with this method, Lynch has endless variations at hand, each one intricate, grabbing the eye with layered designs and tones. Perhaps the work began to feel formulaic somewhere along the line, or perhaps Lynch simply became intrigued by all the varieties of polygonal shapes within just one of his works. For whatever reason, he started copying single cells, and smaller groups of them, and presents them here as drawings and sculptures.

One wall of the gallery is filled with trios: an ink drawing, a gouache and graphite drawing, and a painted pine sculpture, all of the same shape. In these groups, the artist examines space, how it is portrayed, and how different portrayals engage the eye. “Segment 41’’ is a lopsided pentagon, with a handful of intersecting lines projecting from a truncated side near the bottom. Lynch’s crisp drawings read like an architect’s renderings. In the gouache version, pale blue scuffed with green, shadows are deep and liquid, but ruled pencil lines extend beyond the segment’s form, putting the lie to the shadows’ hints at volume. The ink drawing is, comparatively, a feat of economy: clean, straight, and brief, evoking shallow depth.

The sculpture is glossily painted in oil and enamel, in an ivory that blushes orange where the jutting lines near the bottom hit the main structure, suggesting friction or effort. Lynch has painted lines and shading at the top, which suggest even more volume than the piece already has, and they do not appear in either drawing. The sculptures spring from a collision of abstraction and architecture. From a distance they appear rough, like models of quirky stadiums, but up close, they’re finished with exquisite care, and as economical as they are, offer up unexpected painterly nuances, such as the blushing intersections.

The sculptures and the drawings free Lynch to investigate space more effectively than he could with the “Division’’ paintings, which may hint at space with their figure/ground riddles, but garner most of their power from their overwhelming patterns. In several pieces, such as “Segment Collective 4,’’ he builds up and magnifies a group of segments — here, a three-dimensional white web crawls over a wooden panel, painted in yellow surrounded by white. This piece draws out the sheer brawn of Lynch’s line, linking and jointed, ably containing the glow within.

“Segments’’ is a five-by-five grid of individual polygons, each gleaming with paint. Lynch deploys color carefully; he knows its power, and often just an edge or two will carry any strong pigment. This installation reads almost alphabetically, with some forms twisting over themselves or dividing, each definitive.

It’s clear that Lynch put the microscope on his individual cells in order to play with space. The effect is more comprehensive than that. Giving each section space does more than merely launch a visual inquiry into depth and volume. It works metaphorically, too. Give more space, time, or attention, to anything — a flower, a problem, a painting, a sentence — and you’ll find more there than you ever expected.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at


At: Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, through July 11. 207-775-6148,