Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Sanctuary" by Ross Neher at 210 Gallery

Ross Neher's architectonic, all-over abstractions offer a wholly different take on Modernist/Mondrian-type grid painting. While those early 20th century abstractionists sought to suppress the fictive space of painting and instead emphasize the "truth" of two-dimensionality, Neher aggressively courts a recessional reading, using one-point perspective to project the individual cells of his grid back into space. The net effect is that of architectural renderings; the paintings can be read as banks of windows that look out upon an indeterminate landscape while not losing their identity as frontal abstractions which identify closely with the shape of the support.

And to what end does Neher reclaim the so-called illusionistic space that earlier abstraction sought to minimize? It offers a perfect staging for the painter to explore the nuanced rendering of light and atmosphere, which is in my view the real content of these pictures.

Out of the eight paintings in the show, seven are monochromatic, comprised of tints, tones, shades, and gradations of a single color. In these pictures it's easy to imagine that the architectural armature has no local color at all, that it's simply plaster-white or cement-grey, and all the color in the painting is a result of a bath of colored light, coming from the upper left and refracted through a hazy atmosphere. The facets of Neher's window-frames catch this diffused light at various levels of intensity and shadow, and the color in the rectangular openings slowly trails off in a disciplined gradient which often mingles with the grid elements in a close value fog on the right side.

Describing it in this way makes it sound a little like an exercise, but it's not. Immersive color has strong psychological and emotional impact, and Neher's hazy light can be spooky, romantic, mournful, nostalgic, intense, or serene; it varies from picture to picture. I liked every painting in the show, but the two standouts for me were "Dark Sforza" (pictured above) and the pulsating "Blue Aruna."

"Dark Sforza," factually gray but perceptually velvety black, evoked the stern mysteriousness of Reinhardt, but without all that intransigence; it maintained a sense of playfulness, which was a common aspect of all the works in the show. It also had a feature that I always admire - it was extremely dark in value but didn't feel heavy, mainly because of the play of soft light and the subtlety of the surface. In the hands of a lesser painter, black can weigh a ton (and that's not good). The electric "Blue Aruna" was the only picture in the show in which the light didn't look like it emanated from a natural source. The neon, night-club blue seemed to radiate out from the picture as opposed to falling across it. The expansiveness and aggressiveness of the blue made the painting feel much larger than its modest scale would suggest.

These pictures are analogous to Monet's Cathedral at Rouen series; exploring the fugitive effects of light as it dances across a putatively unchanging structure. As solid and immovable as the stone building is, it doesn't only look different under different lighting, it is different - perceived color, while transitory, is factual at the moment of perception, as factual as a stone structure, and painting as a medium has the unique ability to capture and freeze those moments. Like Monet and the Venetians, Ross Neher is one of a small number of painters that truly understands color as a structural element in the organization of pictorial space, and not simply a surface quality of the the forms in the painting.

The show is called "Sanctuary" and will be up until June 13th. 210 Gallery is located 210 25th St. in Brooklyn, and is open Friday to Sunday 12:00 to 6:00, or by appointment. I highly recommend it.

Also of interest to the painter and devotee of painting is Neher's book, "Blindfolding the Muse," which I read shortly before the show opened. It addresses the plight of painting in an era when the visual aspects of art are deeply subordinated to conceptual concerns - it was written in 1999, but might as well have come out last week. It's highly readable and well-reasoned, and available from the big online sellers.