PRINT September 2003


THERE IS A PLACE ON THE CONTINUUM OF VISUAL EXPERIENCE WHERE THE DISTINCTION between natural and geometric form dissolves. Actually there are several such places, and the zones in which difference blurs overlap, such that one can speak of a multidimensional matrix at the core of which the macrocosmic and microcosmic, the organic and the geological, the living and the dead are confounded.

This metamorphic space has long been the preoccupation of science and the playground of science fiction. Thanks to saturation advertising, “matrix” is now a universal buzzword for the digital template in which all mathematical conflations and mutations of given reality occur. One must not forget that in the Wachowski brothers’ space opera, as in most of its ilk, the basic technologies of fantasy are in large part self-consciously retro. To give just one example, consider the machines that, by way of a few computer keyboard tricks, imitate octopuses swimming in the grottoes of the Wachowskis’ drowned futurama even as they rise from the lower depths of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century imagination first plumbed by Jules Verne’s Nautilus. In mass culture, the information age still lives in the increasingly picturesque shadow of the industrial revolution. The wonders of the Brave New World, all spick-and-span in whatever the period style of “futurism” happens to be, are nearly always paired with archetypal monsters and ruined versions of recent or current modernity, usually something on the order of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis gone Angkor Wat or New York City after the Bomb. Take Blade Runner, for instance, or the Dune-Deco mise-en-scène of Matthew Barney’s opus gym-dandyismus.

Stylistic heterogeneity of this kind taps into fundamental uncertainties and ambivalences. In the binary opposition of the novel and the anachronistic around which science fiction is structured, any given sign can be both frightening and reassuring, depending on the counterterms with which it is paired and the immediate context they share. The combinations are basically simple: new wonder/old fear, new fear/old wonder. In short, science fiction is a genre based on simultaneous flights forward and flights backward in time, with the unclear and uneasy present held in suspension at the intersection of these trajectories.

To the extent that realizing a vision of this sort requires familiarity with rarefied frames of reference, science fiction is the prose poetry of nerds. The more fastidiously rendered the illusions used to embody that vision, the more readily we surrender to it. The more matter-of-fact the approach, the more convincing and hence disconcerting its improbable conceits. Thus, surrealism of the academically representational sort is the preferred pictorial language for so many visual artists of this turn of mind. In one capacity or another, most head toward or wander off into the movie business. Otherwise they escape by drawing comics or doing cover art for pulp magazines and books. There aren’t many fulltime painters of genuine interest among them, much less painter’s painters actively engaged in dialogue with modernist tradition and its wayward postmodernist offshoots. Which is why Alexander Ross—since he is and does all these things—quietly attracts and holds attention.

Ross isn’t exactly a newcomer to the scene—at forty-three he isn’t exactly young either—but his first one-person show, at Feature in New York, was only five years ago. (He was first seen in a group show in Newark in 1990.) Also including two appearances at Mary Boone, an exhibition at Daniel Weinberg in Los Angeles, and international exposure in Antwerp, Ghent, Liverpool, London, Mexico City, Montreal, Rotterdam, and Stockholm, that relatively slow emergence makes sense given the formal complexity and refined facture of Ross’s paintings. Although his works on canvas have a fairly consistent look—his palette is almost exclusively composed of muted greens, grays, and blues—and his works on paper are likewise based on a limited set of variables, there is nothing programmatic about his method. His production is correspondingly small, as if he were actively working against the temptation to deploy a signature style and make it “extendable,” while at the same time he seems to be intent on arresting the inherently exfoliating tendencies of his imagery.

Ross’s studio procedures are remarkably straightforward, and essentially old school. Swapping Cézanne’s apples or Morandi’s bottles for an array of morphologically related surfaces and shapes that in one painting may resemble a sea anemone or a greatly magnified mold, in another a butte or table rock against the sky on a planet somewhere outside our solar system, and in still another the cratered terrain of a Limburger-cheese moon seen from above, Ross models the generally small objects he scrutinizes in unctuous, jade-colored plasticine and then enlarges and frames them by photographic means. This first step, transposition of three-dimensional details into two-dimensional formats, initiates the disorientation of scale on which Ross’s pictorial realm is premised, while also introducing optical effects and anomalies—lately, double exposure has become the most pronounced of these—that further estrange his already peculiar motifs.

In every way, Ross’s work thus announces its artificiality and foregrounds its optical ambiguities. The artist’s sober treatment of his explicitly bizarre subject matter, reflecting a strategic decision to think weird and paint straight, sets up the constant but always understated tension between form and content, between overt, even extravagant stylization of the image and restrained, even conservative use of his considerable technical virtuosity that energizes all of his pictures.

On the one hand, then, we have Ross’s sculptural invention: a range of lumps, blobs, coils, and membranes studded with convex and concave discs, buds, and buttons. Some of these smaller units are reminiscent of blood platelets, others compose spongy masses or line viscous cavities. Implicit in all of these potentially shape-shifting configurations is the body, though it is almost always the “body as”—as landscape, for instance, or as some other indeterminate, possibly botanical, possibly geological, entity. The apparent sliminess of these skins, the peristaltic undulations of the more convoluted, sausagelike forms, and the glaucous tints of what, if they were healthy organs, would normally blush red, purple, or blue lend his iconography in all its permutations a repellent, if not morbid, aura.

On the other hand, we have Ross’s way with paint. To say that Ross is not a programmatic painter is not to say that he does not make use of systems—he does—but simply that the systems employed are not handled routinely or repetitively. Thus, for example, one of Ross’s “green giants” may be patterned like a topographical map, with a readily discernible network of hard-edge lozenges filled with strictly graduated values of a single hue that chart the ins and outs of his forms and of the ground in front of which they are presented as if they were the ups and downs of an extraterrestrial badlands. In some cases the pigments are applied in pasty a la prima strokes, while in others they are locked together in facets of a linoleum-like smoothness. And occasionally his paintings have been executed in continuous blended tones in the academic manner or been loosely but authoritatively brushed-in in a seemingly spontaneous fashion, a little as if Ross were Manet observing a clump of fish deposited on a damask tablecloth, except that the fish are closer to slugs or sea cucumbers and the tablecloth is a vertigo-inducing white void. The nuances of size of mark, of graphic modules chosen and their specific permutations, and of the overall knit of passages in several different interlocking systems account for much of the pleasure his paintings give.

Whatever Ross’s painterly mode of address, the accent on the pigment’s texture and the tactile qualities of its application reinforce the sculptural, corporeal aspects of his imagery, as though he, and by proxy the viewer, were poking or palpating an alien creature or inspecting an anatomical specimen under a microscope. With—at one remove—sculptural showmanship of a decidedly postmodern bent comes a straightforward affirmation of the virtues of painting as a traditional medium. And with the fascination of things unknown and marvelous comes a slight queasiness at the partial recognition and the vicarious haptic exploration of things uncannily and uncomfortably like parts of us.

If these polarities serve as the basic parentheses within which Ross operates, his many allusions to other artists and to art-historical precedents subtly widen the scope of what may initially seem like a fairly modest project. In truth Ross’s “modesty” is the setup for a mischievous formalism that selects its targets carefully from among modernism’s major as well as minor masters. And so, with Manet and Morandi guiding his wrist, Ross turns his eyes to the apparently opposing camp of hard-edge abstractionists, starting with Patrick Henry Bruce (of the opaque, planar constructs and the pasty, modular colors) and zigzagging toward the present, or at least the ’60s, by way of the space-frame imagery and shaped canvases of Larry Zox, Al Loving, and Ellsworth Kelly, among others. In an untitled work from 2001, a hexagonal fragment of a larger fretwork is painted against soft blue sky on a horizontal “rectangle” with two squared-off and two rounded corners positioned diagonally. The hexagon, first rendered in yellow green modeling clay with stumps and pores that make it look halfway between a piece of rotting cactus and a crystalline pretzel, is then positioned so that it tilts away from the picture plane and levers the margins of the Kellylike support even as the wavy, obviously patterned background simultaneously asserts the flatness of that plane and causes it to wobble optically. The diagonal cropping of the corners in other works allows for much the same sort of whimsical play on the relation of hard and soft, container and contained, as well as for further art-savvy satire. For instance, an aqua lump sits on the slanted right-hand lower edge of another untitled work from 2001 in what one might call a tense standoff with an incoming mutant seedpod, except that the lump couldn’t achieve the state of “tenseness” any more than a well- chewed gum wad on the sidewalk could (though in the mortal battle between other forms of life that Ross seems to have staged here, ultimate stickiness may be the limper contestant’s posthumous revenge). As one’s gaze drifts into the space between and around these anomalous “things,” the background web of hexagonal units linked in various clusters and chains flexes like the circle-based grids of Tony Smith while the sliced bottom corner recalls similarly irregular abbreviations of the traditional pictorial format by Robert Mangold.

Once one is alerted to them, such allusions multiply, and a kind of perpetually warping déjà vu effect becomes a “normal” way of seeing. Consequently, everything begins to look like something else, not just in the sliding scale of animal-vegetable-mineral possibilities but stylistically too. The beautifully blue allover Tony Smith field in one work thus becomes a no less beautifully blue riff on Warhol’s camouflage paintings in another. And so on—all of which would be strictly academic in the postmodern manner that Philip Taaffe and others patented in the ’80s were it not for the fact that Ross’s paintings are so dense and self-sufficient. Even when one is on the lookout for them, these urbane asides and rejoinders to other art register after one has been struck and absorbed by the painting as a whole. Nor do they interfere with going back to that experience of the painting as a gestalt—a compact aesthetic planet unto itself in the vast cosmos of paintings—once one has grasped the ways in which Ross is nevertheless using aspects of the picture to point to things outside it.

Witty rather than ironic with regard to the questionable perfections of Platonic abstraction, Ross’s work also evokes and pushes off from its organic opposite, namely, all those modernisms that found their source in concepts of vitalism and their scientific confirmation in Sir D’Arcy Thompson’s quite literally seminal On Growth and Form (1917) and its precursor, Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature (1904). Some of Ross’s works on paper recall the tinted line drawings of Haeckel’s volume and the ornate symbolism from which they in turn derive their graphic style. The paintings, however, are less illustrational and more iconic. At one extreme they (especially those pictures that just predate Ross’s recent New York exhibitions) suggest latter-day versions of the fetid “Flowers of Evil” manner of Gustave Moreau or the rampant vegetation of Max Ernst’s jungle-city paintings of the 1930s and ’40s (Europe After the Rain, 1940–42, and its like being the inspiration for countless sci-fi versions of the postapocalyptic picturesque, with Ernst’s filigree decalcomanic plants turned to meaty kudzu, a little as if Robert Smithson’s notions of entropy had invaded the greenhouse). At the opposite extreme, Ross’s images have the contemplative exquisiteness of the land- and seascapes of Vija Celmins—who, it must be said, never paints living things—and the emblematic quality of Georgia O’Keeffe’s floral sublime, except that in Ross’s canvases her suave bones and blossoms on the desert horizon assume a sinister weight and pallor. And like O’Keeffe’s paintings, his are a transcendental variant on the still life, for which the French translation, nature morte, is in his case more apropos.

Not, to be sure, that his images are explicitly funereal but instead that they have a consistently unhealthy or unwholesome cast, tending toward death rather than life, or to an aberrant and excessive fertility that threatens life as we are accustomed to thinking of or seeing it. Therein lies the horrid fascination of Ross’s pictures and their timeliness. With these well-made but unpretentious vessels for our apprehensiveness about a bioengineered world in which “managed” versions of polymorphous perversity become universal and unstoppable phenomena, Ross operates, to that extent, in the classic mode of artists from the Enlightenment through the nuclear age and beyond who, amazed and terrified by the advances of science, filter fact through fantasy and pour new fears into old bottles. Often such Cassandras have favored heavy-breathing melodrama or high moral rhetoric. Fortunately, Ross surveys his territory with quizzical amusement. Rather than follow the example of nineteenth-century artists who painted industry in the image of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” or as something akin to the Baths of Caracalla with gears and pistons added, Ross describes the fleshy reefs and ruins of his brave new genomic world with a wry appreciation of their hybrid aesthetic heritage and a sense of the fun that can always be had by playing stylishly with the objects of our anxiety.

Robert Storr is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.