New York

James de France

Sonnabend Gallery

What James de France has on view are “canvases,” but not exactly paintings. They are, to be sure, made only of canvas on rectangular stretchers, and they are worked with nothing else than paint. But each work, hanging horizontally on the wall, is punctured by twenty-five (also horizontal) oblong slots through which we see the tinted light reflected off colors (painted on the back of the canvas) as it bounces off the white of the wall. We are thus made to marvel at the seeming immateriality of what we behold. The problem is in avoiding the suspicion of simple cleverness. De France seems almost to be giving us optics (not even esthetics) instead of painting, or popular science instead, of a heavyweight scientific/esthetic conceptualism (which has, at least, to do with beauty—the beauty of the world).

It is easy enough to demonstrate that it is not only a gimmick. Between the 25 horizontal slits, in five rows of five, you can see twenty tidy implied squares, and the very pleasing proportions of the pieces do evidence compositional care. But I wonder how long that can satisfy us. And while the idea may not merely be a gimmick, it is still a gimmick too. (In contrast, and in a different mode, Ellsworth Kelly has been able to make paintings where there is optical effect in the glow of a purple generated by the juxtaposition of color, but then the physically present part of the work was adequate in itself as a picture, not just the occasion of an effect.)

Each work has its facade painted evenly in a neutral, matte (I am tempted to say “decorator”) color. One is a light gray, one brown, one black, one a sort of battleship gray, and one a purplish flesh tint. Obviously the whole effect depends upon having an all-white, light-bouncing room as a setting, which to my mind brings the whole affair dangerously close to taste. It is as if what aspired to the gesampt-environmental in painting could rise only to the level of a certain type of living room.

But perhaps I’m being too puritanical, or in a different way, not puritanical enough. De France’s work here is really a pleasure to look at, and if that in itself is not sufficient recommendation, you can always turn to the way he manages such incandescent luminosity without clumsy wires, buzzing neon or ticking fluorescent tubes, and admire that.

Joseph Masheck