Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Ross Chisholm at Marc Jancou Contemporary

June 18 to July 31
Great Jones Alley (off Great Jones Street)
New York City, 212 473 2100

Ross Chisholm, Irradiation 2009.  Oil on canvas, 7.87 x 5.91 inches. Images courtesy of Marc Jancou Contemporary
Ross Chisholm, Irradiation 2009. Oil on canvas, 7.87 x 5.91 inches. Images courtesy of Marc Jancou Contemporary

The title of Ross Chisholm’s exhibition, “FIN,” signals “END” in French.  In this latest body of work, the artist appears to be moving away from his acclaimed series of small-format paintings featuring found images of Brits on holiday. Of the 18 canvases in the current show, only three use 20th-century vacationers shorn of their iconic snapshot landscape and repositioned amid mysterious painterly realms.

Is that meticulously rendered woman with handbag and sensible shoes, for example, gesturing toward the abyss of an absent landmark in Under the Fading Light of the Closest Star? (All the works in this article 2009.) Her hand seems to linger on light itself, while a thick blob of paint bobs above her head—part UFO, part Jackson Pollock. Her odd predicament brings an amused smile to our face, but not a laugh. The background shadows are too menacing and deep, throbbing with an almost Goya-esque expressionism. Maybe the matron is escaping into a sci-fi film. Maybe she’s wandering through the forbidden recesses of memory itself.

The imagery in Chisholm’s current show owes more to the august history of British portraiture and landscape than it does to mid-century images of vacationers, though his reliance on found imagery—either projected directly onto the canvas or appropriated as support—remains constant. In appropriating historical images, Chisholm is not creating a pastiche, in the way Laura Owens uses children’s illustrations, or Gilbert and George use pop British culture. Chisholm’s works do not turn on irony. The found imagery is transformed with results that are expressive and fresh.

In works like Down the Road to the River, the artist transposes a portrait of a noblewoman, the kind that might grace an Old Master, onto a readymade idyllic landscape reminiscent of Thomas Gainsborough. The woman floats, Ophelia-like, over the rustic countryside. Chisholm paints her in such a way that the woman/earth association fades out, like the folds of her dress, while the morphing pictorial superimposition releases potential imagery the way that clouds morph into recognizable forms. Is that a Buddha between her knees?

A tendency towards layering and superimposition is also present in a series of remarkable works that combine the sensuous detailing of the “portraits” with geometrical forms. These paintings, with their reminiscent Van Dyck-meets-Malevich moments, are nonetheless wholly Chisholm in technique and vision. The “fin” now is less French than it is dorsal. In the work that bequeathed its name to the show, the artist paints a partially translucent Old Master female on cardboard with spiky triangles along her back, while in Irradiation, triangular rays seem to beam out of a woman’s eyes, threatening to transform her from a proper 18th-century aristocrat into a seer from a distant planet. In some paintings, the triangles seem almost like shattered glass, as if the picture plane itself were breaking up, but the effect is not violent. Chisholm’s muted palette and mottled surface take the edge off, so the sharpness does not cut, but perhaps merely points—into the intimate corridors of a rich and astonishing imagination.