Spotlight: Artist Debbie Ma’s Abstract Works Recall Historic Movements With a Contemporary Spin

Ma's decades of experience in graphic design and penchant for material experimentation result in captivating canvases.

Artist Debbie Ma at work.

Every month, hundreds of galleries add newly available works by thousands of artists to the Artnet Gallery Network—and every week, we shine a spotlight on one artist or exhibition you should know. Check out what we have in store, and inquire for more with one simple click.

What You Need to Know: Right now, the David Owsley Museum of Art, part of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, is presenting the solo exhibition “Rising to the Surface: Paintings by Debbie Ma.” On view through December 21, 2023, the exhibition features a range of works from the Philippines-born, American artist’s oeuvre, highlighting her subtly evolving practice and ongoing experimentation with color and texture. In many ways evoking aspects of 20th-century Modernism like geometric abstraction, and Abstract Expressionism—namely the mark making by Cy Twombly and gesturality of Jackson Pollock—Ma brings a distinctive nuance to her use of pattern and materiality.

This past October, Ma gave a public artist talk, which can be viewed online, and the show is accompanied by a fully illustrated exhibition catalogue. For those who cannot make the exhibition in-person, the museum also has an online virtual tour, where visitors can explore and revisit aspects of the show within the venue’s beaux-arts building at their own pace.

Why We Like It: Ma’s paintings invite prolonged looking. While appearing at first blush to be straightforward, upon closer inspection the arrangement of lines, marks, colors, and textures come together to make their own compositional symphony. Presented with a selection of both recent and older works within the exhibition, the measured yet experimental evolution of her artistic line of inquiry becomes apparent. Where some works feature dizzying, geometric patterns that elude easy categorization, others are quieter, and more contemplative in their palette and arrangement of shapes. Incorporating marble dust into her medium, each piece bears a visible weight and monumentality that pigment alone could not achieve and alludes to the genre of sculpture. Together, the works within “Rising to the Surface: Paintings by Debbie Ma” offer a profound look into Ma’s singular practice.

According to the Museum: “We are grateful that New York-based artist Debbie Ma is holding her first public museum exhibition in America’s heartland,” said museum Director Robert G. La France, PhD. “Her balanced harmonious paintings connect directly with the pleasure centers in the brain, both calming and uplifting viewers’ moods, often recalling the sensuous ornamentality of the Pattern and Decoration movement. Like great relief sculpture, their mesmerizing marble dust surfaces also attract the fingertips. I want to thank Debbie for sharing her experience, art, and ideas for the purpose of inspiring a new generation of student artists.”

See featured works from the exhibition below.

Debbie Ma, Ouarzazate (2009). David Owsley Museum of Art, Ball State University, Muncie, IN.

Debbie Ma, Chez Henri (2021).

Debbie Ma, Sanctuary (2022). Exhibition loan from Private Collection.

Debbie Ma, Past Tense (2022).

Debbie Ma, Porcelain Earth (2023).


Rising to the Surface: Paintings by Debbie Ma” is on view at the David Owsley Museum of Art, Ball State University, Muncie, IN, through December 21, 2023.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.