Salon 70

Ward-Nasse Gallery

Salon 70 is an exhibition of fifty painters and sculptors, most of whom live and work in and around Boston. The majority are also relatively young (late 20s, early 30s) and unknown outside the immediate area. Each artist is represented by four works, which, given the restricted space of the gallery, means that the pieces are generally small and are literally stacked from floor to ceiling. Hence, the idea of a Salon.

The exhibition itself is a kind of bizarre phenomenon, a mélange of things funky, Surrealist, Minimal, Pop, social, figurative, and so forth. If the show is any indication, and I tend to think that it is, Boston cannot be characterized as possessing any particular thrust or direction in its contemporary art. Which is not surprising. There doesn’t seem to be any real locus in the city—no clearly outstanding gallery or museum or school —where such a thrust, whether desirable or undesirable, might begin to take shape or gain momentum. So things are spread out and new work pops up sporadically. In terms of this situation, “Salon 70” fills a real need and must be counted as a considerable success.

More importantly, the show is a success because it contains two artists with real talent: Robert Cronin and Robert Nason. Cronin, who presently teaches at Brown University, is represented by four seemingly unambitious ink wash drawings. The pieces are surprisingly simple, consisting in each case of a handful of individually discernible strokes (a minimum of two in Double Lock and a maximum of 16 in Sixteen Times). The strokes are consistently executed with a broad, well-loaded brush, but none are reworked; that is, each stroke is primary, a first stroke, an individual mark on the paper. Grouping of the strokes is also held within careful limits, calling attention either to the center of the page (Double Lock and Phase-Out) or to its rectangular shape (Sixteen Times or Aluminum/Silk). In spite of these restrictions, the drawings reflect an extraordinary range of feeling; the wash exudes both control and spontaneity, an acceptance of limitations, but a statement of freedom within them. At the risk of overburdening the artist, I suggest that the wash is handled with a feeling for the wash drawings of Goya or Rembrandt —with that kind of attention to the range of the medium, its quickness, suggestiveness, and power, as well as its intrinsic demand for decisiveness of both concept and execution.

But the drawings are compellingly modern. That is, any relation to the Old Masters is qualitative and radical—not a matter of homage or of self-conscious “up-dating” an older idiom. In fact, I would say they are modernist in the way they bare themselves and their process. In this regard, the singleness of the strokes is crucial, an acknowledgement of the kinds of gestures needed to evoke the drama of the medium. Likewise with the grouping of the strokes: the decision to acknowledge format is not merely a mechanical formal device, an alternative to making an image of something or to arranging an arbitrary configuration. Rather, decision itself—the specific decision of how to acknowledge format—is put nakedly on the page, made the content of the drawing. Finally, a function of these decisions involves the bands, areas, and lines of white that enclose or separate the black wash strokes. The white page alternately yields to illusion, asserts its flatness, or, when dividing two closely related strokes, functions like a positively drawn mark. Cronin’s white thus acknowledges the presence of the page as an additional fact of the medium that must be taken into account. Individually or as a group, the drawings elicit a consciousness of the precise ways in which drawing itself is a problematic enterprise. And, to the extent that they recall the quality of Old Master drawing, these works reveal how that enterprise was not.

Robert Nason’s paintings are also concerned with format and with white or “empty” areas of space. In his recent work, Nason either stretches one or more bands of color across each of the four corners of his canvas (Olive Green Square or Blue Square), or he angles clusters of bands from the lower left- and right-hand corners toward the upper center of the painting (Leaning Extension with Green, Yellow and Blue or Leaning Extension with Deep Orange). As the titles indicate, the first solution is used for square formats, the second for rectangles. But both solutions deal directly with the issue of format.

In the square paintings it seems imperative that the bands cross each corner at right angles to one another—that is, that each corner be made to count (more or less) as much as the other three, thus drawing attention to the fact that the format has four equal sides. Needless to say, the temptation here would be to make each corner literally like the others, thereby making a “point” (about format), but not necessarily a painting. But Nason avoids the literalist solution: most obviously by varying one or another of the colors at each corner and, additionally, by allowing each band or cluster of bands to reach across a different length of canvas. As a result, each corner and each white, including the white of the center, has a distinct and positive pictorial identity.

The rectangular paintings are at this point less resolved. Although the color bands effectively acknowledge their format both in their own shape and via the white sections on their outer sides, the central sections of the paintings seem to be more arbitrary. This is particularly noticeable at the upper framing edge: small triangles of white are “left over” where the bands meet. Because of their small size, these areas tend to fall away from the rest of the surface and barely hold as pictorial units.

––Carl Belz