The paintings in the Robert Novel retrospective at Hemphill Artworks are austere and geometric, yet also playful. Nearly all the untitled abstracts are black and white, but they’re in multiple shades of those hues, and occasionally include planks of gray. And though the forms are simple, straightedge and mostly quadrilateral, they’re handled in ways that hint at 3D perspective. The paintings were made between 2015 and 2020 by Novel, a longtime Washingtonian who died in 2021.
Like the 1960s Washington colorists, Novel left raw canvas (or linen, which is slightly darker) to contrast the painted areas. But he also employed white pigment, and one of these pictures is merely an hourglass-like hexagon, rendered in textured, milky paint on off-white linen. Other compositions position elementary black shapes on blank canvas but insert subtle white forms that are visible only on close inspection.
Most dynamic are the pictures in which jauntily arranged trapezoids, grouped tightly together, appear to fracture. The fault lines vary in width and don’t always bisect the entire figure. The effect is to give the painted forms an illusion of weight and to suggest that the process of splitting is ongoing. The shapes are just hard-edge blocks of black — or in one case, blue — but Novel knew how to give them heft and animation.
Robert Novel Paintings Through Aug. 13 at Hemphill Artworks, 434 K St. NW.