Clint Fulkerson, “White Nebula #7,” 2012, gouache on paper, 22 x 30 in.
Clint Fulkerson, “White Nebula #7,” 2012, gouache on paper, 22 x 30 in.
Monotony is not usually associated with anything positive. "Wearisome uniformity or lack of variety" is how the dictionary defines it. In terms of art, however, monotonous repetition or sameness has the potential for beauty and surprises - possibilities explored by the current show at Belfast's Åarhus Gallery, "Sublime Monotony."

To say it up front, this is one of the strongest shows I have seen at Åarhus. The concept is rich and open to a variety of interpretations, and the work is superbly thought through and executed. The 13 artists incorporate monotony with varying emphasis on physical repetition, metaphorical allusions to life, and interaction with accident and choice. The fact that no repetition is ever the same, at least not when humans are involved, is illustrated succinctly by Mark Kelly's circular ring of footprints on paper. This record of a performative action visualizes the relation between motion and feeling quite sadly. Life can sometimes feel circular, but here especially so since the artist used the ash of burned artworks as his medium. Yet the stray toe print here and there illustrates, voluntarily or not, that we do wander somewhat and are likely to discover new territory in the process. Interpreting the work this way through closer looking and the lens of human experience, it becomes a more hopeful statement. Time, and a similar interaction between predictability and accident, is also the operating principle behind Wesley Reddick's "Pendulum." While the suspended bowling ball hypnotically swings between the two extremes of its arc of movement, the direction of that arc depends on the unpredictable initial push and its distance constantly diminishes in entropic monotony.

Karen McDonald has contributed three wonderful pieces appropriately made of mundane cardboard, paper and rope. Elegiac repetitions of the handwritten word "days" provide monotone backgrounds for formal interventions that one may view as violent disruptions or welcome respites from sameness. McDonald's "Stack (What I Know for Sure)" features hole-punched strips of paper and the corresponding chads arranged neatly in rows within set parameters but also scattered randomly. The interplay of order and chaos, positive and negative, contrast and uniformity emphasizes relativity-nothing is known for sure; which is maybe the most hopeful way of thinking of the sublime in the midst of monotony. With powerful material and formal subtlety McDonald's works explore the dimensions of human life, its beauty, surprises, tensions and hurts, in abstract terms.

More purely formal interests in variation within repetition inform Gabriella D'Italia's graphite drawing and black pieced-cotton work and Stew Henderson's geometric study of the interaction of color and shape.

Monotony can be boring and depressing, but liberating as well. In the hands of Kate Russo, it becomes an opportunity to exercise choice. Her color variations of intricate marks on graph paper add up to mosaic mandalas. Clint Fulkerson similarly stretches or condenses the same linear configurations in his "White Nebula" gouaches on black paper. The modular structures of both artists' works, but especially Fulkerson's, suggest the cellular level of nature. Ken Johnson and Marcie Jan Bronstein contributed photographs, and J.T. Gibson one painting, which focus on the macrocosmic repetitiveness in nature's expansive textures.

The work of Willy Reddick and Richard Mann focuses on the mundanity and circular fashion of everyday life in more literal terms and is thus representational as well. Reddick's exquisite little paintings (one of a cross-section of a red onion) elevate their subjects to the status of reliquaries of the commonplace. Mann's engraving of a multitude of coffee or teacups stands in for the morning rituals that sometimes make it worth even getting up every single day. Couched in an ironic statement on art, Marc Leavitt inscribed a large sheet of paper all over with the word "blah" in multiple colors. This is about as far away as you can get in subtlety from McDonald's fields of words. Yet Leavitt's drawing/writing reveals another opportunity the tedium of monotony has to offer, the freedom of small changes, like turning a piece of paper around and thus creating a line of words that will appear upside-down.

"Sublime Monotony" perfectly demonstrates the creative potential of repetitiveness. Rhythmic movement and gesture allow for difference, anticipation of sameness hones the eye to variation, and comparison to life opens up avenues of appreciation. In these artists' work tedium gives rise to not just moments, but lasting impressions, of transcendence, striking the mind with a sense of grandeur - one definition of the sublime.