Friday, July 2nd, 2010

A Revealing Illusionist: Renaissance-inspired Ross Neher’s geometric abstraction

Ross Neher: Sanctuary at 210 Gallery

May 1 to June 13, 2010
210 24th Street, between Gowanus Expressway and 4th Avenue
Brooklyn, 718 499 6056
Ross Neher, Armistice, 2007.  Oil on canvas, 28-1/4 c 32  inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Ross Neher, Armistice, 2007. Oil on canvas, 28-1/4 c 32 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Ross Neher’s modest one-person exhibition at the 210 Gallery in Brooklyn reveals something very important about abstract painting: In the best work, there is always more than what initially meets the eye.  Following Neher’s career as a painter for over two decades, I have become increasingly cognizant of the way he grabs something he has actually seen in real time and space and proceeds to refine and/or embellish it as an abstract pictorial theme in multiple variations. In this recent exhibition, he only showed a fraction of the work he did between 2003-2009 based on detailed notations of the walls of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

This was not his first encounter with late Renaissance architecture. Neher performed precisely the same procedure during a visit to Umbria in 1997.  On that occasion, Neher saw the magnificent Palazzo di Consoli in Gubbio and immediately commenced a thorough analysis of this architectural monument. He studied every inch of the Palazzo, but from the perspective of an abstract painter, rather than an architect.  In addition to the form, he investigated the light, and the effect of light at various times of the day (not unlike Monet at Rouen).

As for perspective, Neher apparently perceives little distinction between the convergence of lines on a horizon and how the shifting patterns of light alter the manner in which he sees these persistent linear demarcations.  In one way, illusion enters into a synthetic view of the architecture where the light is subtly transformed into contrasting hues, as in Faro (2006), or modular values, as in Dark Sforza (2005) – the latter being an iconic painting that serves to clarify the artist’s intention as he moves between representation and abstract form. In either case, we see canvases divided into an system of beveled rectangles where relatively shallow spaces are placed within the structure of an unequal grid. To achieve the effect of two levels of space, a perspectival illusion is created within the interior framed edges. In addition, the paintings use color and tonality to emphasize the inner and outset aspects of the grid.

Ross Neher, Faro, 2006.  Oil on canvas, 31-1/2 x 33-1/4 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Ross Neher, Faro, 2006. Oil on canvas, 31-1/2 x 33-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

By avoiding rhetorical pretensions, Neher takes the concept of abstract geometry to another level. In his kind of painterly phenomenology the abstract picture plane is susceptible to certain limitations ,unless it can be brought back to another form of representation, in which case painting itself becomes the issue.  As revealed in Dark Sforza or in a slightly later square painting, Gray Faro (2007), he seeks to transform abstraction through empirical observations of historical architecture into a kind of imaginative form, thus balancing the illusion of perspective in relation to color modulation and light.

While there is little doubt that his spatial grids have cubic portals of variable dimensions that provide an interesting contrast in relation to the color harmonies, modulations, and contrasts, his approach has virtually nothing to do with Cubism. If anything – upon seeing horizontal rectilinear paintings, such as The Red Zone (2004) or Interlude (for Bridget Riley) (2005) – I would say that there is a certain Mannerist impulse in these works that verges on Expressionism. And yet, it is ultimately no more Expressionism than it is Cubism.  Rather I would read these paintings as a form of optical painting, although one that avoids the trappings of what Victor Vasarely termed the “optical kinetic.” there is nothing superfluous in these paintings, everything counts. But in some cases, the awkward feasibility of the forms resembles a style of Mannerist painting that would finally have their roots in a kind of opticality where the viewer is expected to fill-in the absences within the various interior frames.  This happens largely because the surfaces are somehow never complete. Like Giacometti’s late sculptures, the intensity of the work suggests an unfinished quality. Thus, Neher’s paintings are perpetually transforming themselves in relation to the optical phenomenon of seeing.