Re-Enchanting California Hard Edge: Visual Politics in the Glow Paintings of Kelly Brumfield-Woods

 Kelly Brumfield-Woods,  Red Silver #1  (2014), Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

Kelly Brumfield-Woods, Red Silver #1 (2014), Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

by Grace Linden

Recent paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Brumfield-Woods explore the architecture of space and form. Works from the series Glow Paintings present “autonomous shapes”[1] that join together to create dynamic compositions that encourage looking. Indeed, while Brumfield-Woods’ compositions may at first glance seem simple, do not be misled. A closer study reveals a harmony to the geometry in the way in which the shapes abut one another. Red Silver # 1 (2014) features a blue diamond with a slim neon orange highlight in a field of silver. The orange completes the diamond, but also acts like the sliver of a shadow. Her simplified geometric compositions are reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly’s contoured canvases which pair two distinct shapes in (often) bright colors to form a sculptural painting. Like Ellsworth Kelly, Brumfield-Wood’s use of jarring colors further emphasizes form and its construction.

Working in the tradition of California hard-edge painting, Brumfield-Woods’ paintings are characterized by their reliance on flatness, complimentary shapes, and, of course, a hard-edge. Writing in the late 1950s about the advent of west-coast geometric abstraction in the exhibition catalogue Four Abstract Classicists, critic and curator Jules Langsner explains that “forms in [these] paintings are in continuous flux. Forms are not frozen in an instant of time, nor are they constructed as a building—firmly fixed in a stationary place.”[2] This formal description of the work of her predecessors holds true for Brumfield-Woods' equally dynamic compositions. What is so captivating about Brumfield-Woods’ canvases is precisely this movement; despite being fixed in acrylic and glitter, the compositions nonetheless flicker and fluctuate. There is always something new to see.

Langsner’s Four Abstract Classicists examined the work of what he called the Abstract Classicists, artists who were attuned to the “element of form,”[3] and the 1959 exhibition featured four painters: Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. While all contributed to the field of hard-edge painting, Benjamin’s work provides a strong framework for considering Brumfield-Woods’ paintings. His Red, Blue, Pink Symmetry (1958) is composed of interlocking forms that undulate across the canvas. Using different shades of blue, red, and pink to produce highlights and shadows, the composition appears folded and three-dimensional. Brumfield-Woods’ Aquifuge (2016) produces a similar optical distortion using black, pink, and red quadrilaterals which seem to protrude from the canvas. The pinks and reds form windows through which the black sparkling panels appear like the night sky.  As with clouds floating in the sky, the shapes are beguiling in their abstraction and allow us as viewers to project our own fantastical interpretations.

Langsner wrote, “Our pleasure, our satisfaction, in response to a classical work of art derives in no small degree from the awareness of the work’s configuration, from the clarity and coherence of its structure.”[4] He argues for a new understanding of classicism marked by a devotion to and “concern”[5] with form. Both Brumfield-Woods and Benjamin knit shapes together like collage and in doing so, create an order and clarity of structure. These flat compositions present a cohesion which is balanced by vibrant, forceful colors bringing each shape to life.

In his article “American Painting: On Space and Time in the Early 1960’s,” Matthew Baigell argues that a “sense of stasis”[6] was achieved in hard-edge paintings.  He writes, “The various colors and shapes met each other as if they were part of a single, unified skin. Depth cues, which imply movement and time sequences, were minimized.”[7] In addition to a gap in time, what distinguishes Brumfield-Woods from other hard-edge painters is her material choice and the motion they inspire: In place of paint, she uses glitter, and even at times faux fur, to create the color fields. The tiny sparkles of glitter and rippling fur surfaces add texture and depth (and consequently movement) to these hallucinatory paintings. By mimicking paint with glitter and fur, the shapes’ edges seem to pop even more. In particular, the softness of the fur makes it easy to imagine touching the paintings. It not only inspires a visceral response but transforms the paintings from images into dimensional, physical objects. No analysis, however short, of fur in art would be complete without mentioning Meret Oppenheim and her Object (1936), a fur covered cup, saucer, and teaspoon. While suggestive of refinement, Object also speaks to humanity’s primal nature. In a similar sense, the paintings acknowledge this duality. Consider Pelt (2016) in which a blue diamond is surrounded by shapes in pink, blue, green and yellow. The entire canvas is overlaid with black stripes, parts of which are made from synthetic fur. Like a print in a book of optical illusions or the blue of a swimming pool, the central diamond flickers. The three-dimensional fur gives a primal undertone to an otherwise smooth painting.

 Kelly Brumfield-Woods,  Pelt  (2016), Acrylic, glitter, and faux fur on canvas, 72 x 72 inches

Kelly Brumfield-Woods, Pelt (2016), Acrylic, glitter, and faux fur on canvas, 72 x 72 inches

Brumfield-Woods began her career as a studio assistant for Mary Corse, a member of the male-dominated Light and Space movement. The Light and Space movement focuses on synthetic materials, surface, and perception and Corse’s “austere” paintings explore perception and “respond to the changing light conditions and the viewer’s movements.”[8] Untitled (One Inner Band) (2011) is a seemingly monochromatic white painting made of acrylic and glass microspheres. But by altering the vantage point, three bands emerge producing a glistening surface.

Brumfield-Woods cites Light and Space artists as key influences and this effect is perhaps most noticeable in her choices of color. In early paintings, Brumfield-Woods paired colors in hopes of finding a “vibration.”[9] To quote from Jan Butterfield’s The Art of Light + Space:

The Light and Space artists are primarily concerned not with color itself but with the perception of color. When color is utilized, it is never for color’s sake alone; its use is based on the belief that color can be not only visual information, not only metaphor, but a physical presence.[10]

Her colors are painstakingly selected in order to produce the after-image or glow that occurs when two complimentary colors are paired. This ultimately is an optical and not aesthetic choice. 

While Brumfield-Woods appreciates the minimalist gesture of Light and Space works, in her own practice, she hopes to create something a bit “naughtier.”[11] Indeed, despite the strictness of her paintings, she tries to avoid the “monasticism”[12] of Minimalism and hard-edge traditions.  Bright colors and flashy glitter help to fill her works with a sense of play and delight. By choosing glitter over paint, Brumfield-Woods pays homage to the Light and Space movement with a cheeky wink.  Because of its association with craft and kids’ projects, glitter is often assumed to be kitschy and for the masses - in short, a material of low art. It is true that glitter is not often used in works of art. The key exception of course is Andy Warhol, but even then he did not use glitter but diamond dust to decorate his silkscreens of shoes. In Warhol’s prints, the diamond dust fills the floor upon which the shoes rest. In spite of using diamond dust (a symbol of elitism and elegance) Warhol’s prints are mass produced and resemble his earlier shoe drawings used in advertisements. There is something wholly kitschy about these images.

Flamboyant and shiny, glitter has a camp sensibility that queers abstraction. Post-World War II abstraction as an art movement is often discussed in terms of gender: The period demanded a masculinity that conformed to heteronormative conceptions of virility, vitality, and authenticity; indeed, hard-edge paintings present a sense of aggressive and overt masculinity.[13] Moreover, as hard-edge painting (as well as Light and Space and other variations including Abstract Expressionism) is a male-dominated movement, it is understandable, if limiting, that this type of interpretation is read in the works themselves. The quasi-camp aesthetics in Brumfield-Woods’ paintings in combination with glitter’s link to Queer culture help to upend traditional gendered readings of abstract art.

Although tangential to Brumfield-Woods’ practice, and despite not being explicitly linked to drag culture, both glitter and self-costuming are nonetheless interesting considerations and worth probing in relation to the Glow Series. Drag is, first and foremost, about masquerade and assuming a new identity; by destabilizing the normative understanding of sexuality and gender, drag culture resists power structures. Indeed, by emphasizing the mutability and performative elements of gender, drag challenges the idea that there is only one true gender experience. In a similar manner, glitter presents a “dramatic display of the feminine and is a symbol for LGBT empowerment.”[14] Costuming the body in drag or glitter allows one to both take on new identities and narratives and engage in a fundamentally political act.

 Kelly Brumfield-Woods,  Katafront  (2016), Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 12 x 12 inches

Kelly Brumfield-Woods, Katafront (2016), Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 12 x 12 inches

In Brumefield-Woods’ paintings, glitter aestheticizes the body (canvas). Consider her painting Katafront (2016), a small canvas where shades of blues, orange, green and pink converge on three thin vertical lines. The shapes are delineated harshly and there is a force in the centripetal motion. But, because the forms are made of glitter, the violence of the painting is subdued and instead becomes cheery. The lines fan out like an Art Deco lamp or the strobe lights in the Fox Searchlight logo; light is brought into the painting. Even the title, Katafront, implies a performance: Kata in Japanese is a series of choreographed movements used predominantly in martial arts. Martial arts have undeniable masculine undertones, but the glitter interrogates any preconceived assumptions: Karate et al can be camp!

By using drag aesthetics and the flamboyance of glitter, Brumfield-Woods challenges the long held (although inaccurate) belief that abstraction is a man’s movement. While the market and history privilege white male artists, Brumfield-Woods’ Glow Series puts forth a more radical alternative: That art history can be subverted, and that, as evident as it may be, there is nothing integrally masculine or heterosexual about abstract art. Light and Space and hard edge artists avoid ideological messages in their paintings; what is political is the gesture and its abstraction. But by using glitter, Brumfield-Woods not only makes the canvas political, but politicizes the act of looking: What and how we choose to see (as well as what gets ignored) can be an ideological act unto itself. Indeed, she makes viewers agents in this radical transformation of perception, an entirely personal experience. Brumfield-Woods acknowledges her precursors and owes much to both hard-edge and Light and Space artists, but her material choice fundamentally modernizes the past and makes it political.



Four Abstract Classicists (San Francisco: KoltunBros., 1959). Exhibition catalogue.

Matthew Baigell, “American Painting: On Space and Time in the Early 1960’s.” Art Journal Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 1969). Accessed on 29 July 2016.

[1] Four Abstract Classicists (San Francisco: KoltunBros., 1959) p. 10

[2] Four Abstract Classicists, p. 11

[3] Four Abstract Classicists, p. 8

[4] IBID.

[5] IBID.

[6] “Matthew Baigell, “American Painting: On Space and Time in the Early 1960’s.” Art Journal Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 1969) p. 370

[7] IBID.

[8] Matthew Nichols. “Mary Corse Is More Than a California Artist.” Art in America, February 9, 2012. Accessed on July 28 2016.

[9] Email exchange with Kelly Brumfield-Woods, 28 July 2016.

[10] Jan Butterfield. The Art of Light + Space (New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1993) p. 10

[11] Email exchange with Kelly Brumfield-Woods, 12 July 2016.

[12] IBID.

[13] Marcia Brennan, Modernism’s Masculine Subjects: Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction (London: The MIT Press, 2004) p. 10

[14] Lauren Oyler, “The History of Glitter.” Broadly 14 September 2015 (Accessed on 2 August 2016)

Learn more about Kelly on the artist's Profile page.