ROSS NEHER Sanctuary
On View210 Gallery
May 1 – June 13, 2010
David Foster Wallace considered tennis “chess on the run” because, like chess, there are an infinite number of possible plays that can be made once the ball is set in motion. Infinite variability comes out of an adherence to formal constraints: sets of boundaries and standardized rules. In painting the canvas might be considered the boundary; the standardized rules determined by invariable color relationships (as in red and blue will always make purple). From these restrictions emerges the infinitude of space—the depths, shallows, and flats—that is the provenance of painting and the central focus of Ross Neher’s recent work.
Neher’s canvases are better than Valium for your eyes. They’re soothing without being sedative, a delicate balance refined nicely by Color Field predecessors such as Kenneth Noland or Jack Bush. Like the Color Field artists Neher’s work emphasizes overall consistency and form rather than the lively gestural brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, Neher’s brushstrokes are virtually undetectable; his surfaces are as flat and smooth as a finely polished stone. But what’s depicted—a non-repeating pattern of squares, rectangles, and trapezoids—creates a spatial illusion that is dynamic and shifting.
Neher’s paintings contain such a multitude of one-point perspectives that the shapes on the canvas appear to literally shift depending on your viewing position. Trapezoids come together forming a series of triangles whose pointy ridgelines track the viewer’s gaze like heliotropic plants bending towards the sun. The effect is similar to the Mona Lisa’s eyes and, more concretely, to the constructions of Patrick Hughes. The careful plotting of space and the abundance of simple shapes and lines calls to mind Mondrian’s canvases and the heyday of Geometric Abstraction. What distinguishes Neher’s work from the Geo Abs is that their compositions were non-representational and, for the most part, void of spatial depth. Neher uses the conventions of the Geo Abs but to a whole different end, to create space in all its fluctuating ambiguity.
On top of the tight geometric framework Neher paints a skin of color with textbook precision. Only one work in the exhibition is monochromatic, “Dark Sforza,” while the other seven paintings deploy sweeping shifts in tone, hue, and chroma to create the illusion of light and shadow playing on the geometric forms. “Aruna,” for example, is painted in tawny shades of red, orange, brown, ochre, and purple, a fitting palette considering Aruna in Hindi translates roughly as “the redness of the rising sun”. The orange highlights project a light source coming from the painting’s upper-right corner. All squares and rectangles drop back, receding into an indefinable distance. On the left side of the canvas the tones become much more muted, giving the appearance of cast shadow.
All the evidence of rigorous plotting and patient execution makes for a sense of absence. Without any component to give a degree of scale, Neher’s unoccupied spaces could be tiny or colossal. The possibilities are infinite and as a consequence the formal barriers of the painting become elastic. Every edge—the actual ends of the canvas as well as the painted delineations—expands or contracts to contain the imagined space.
These works could easily be “Untitled 1 – 8,” but they’re not. The titles—“Armistice,” “Piet-Pieta,” “Faro,” “Dark Sforza”—load the otherwise painterly purity of the work with political, social, and art historical connotations. When you add the intellectual element to the optical splendor, the mood established by the atmosphere of color grounds itself in association. The temporary peace between warring parties alluded to in “Armistice” is a sunny orange that fades into a flattening greenish murk. Both the warmth of the orange and the calm in the suspension of hostilities evoke a sense of serenity undermined by temporality. The orange eventually turns green; the war resumes.
The title of the exhibition, Sanctuary, implies refuge with the potential for holiness. You don’t forget your problems in a sanctuary; you accept them and sometimes that brings relief. Neher’s paintings, the embodiment of concentration and meditation, might be a sanctuary for the artist. I wouldn’t call them sacred, but I’ll admit how rejuvenating it can be to imagine the infinity of space when you’re feeling bound by life’s constraints.