New York

Charles Ross

John Weber Gallery

Grandeur in a work of art does not necessarily follow from the grandeur or monumentality of its content, or of the idea behind it. In fact, there can be a kind of inverse relation between a picture and its conceptual course, whereby the picture is made to seem small and insignificant if it is not absolutely and authoritatively greater than the world it shows. Thus Charles Ross stacks the deck against himself when he proposes to paint whole years full of time or, in his current show, the entire cosmos. Both his major undertakings, his solar burns of several years ago and his recent stellar maps, rely on our instinctive tendency to be overwhelmed by colossal ideas: of infinite space, or of vast stretches of time described by the minute passage of seconds. In so doing his work ignores our need to be overwhelmed by the object at hand—it leaves the eye out and undermines itself.

Ross is not unaware of the danger here and he tries to compensate for it; but he does so with pictorial devices that are transparent and elementary, and that are made to seem meagre, are perhaps doomed to fail by the size of the content they are assigned to handle. First of all, he makes his paintings huge. Huge by gallery standards, by the standards of human space, but so insignificant in comparison to the galactic range he pictures that he might just as well give us an astronomer’s 8 x 10" photograph.

Were he to do this, he would of course lose the intricate detail that his map-paintings appear to need. Yet Ross has misstepped again in believing that flurries of little dots, darkening in the denser territories of space as they do, could truly give us the sense of eternal spells of stars. Likewise, the sinuous regularity and repetition of his maps’ designs are intended (even if Ross attributes the designs to systemic necessity) to equal some massive and inscrutable cosmological order. But Ross’ conchlike maps do not conjure the horrific mystery of Blake’s writhing Leviathan; they are not demoniacal but predictable. In this they are perhaps suitable for astronauts who, catapulted from the earth in terror, must need rational assurance that vast spaces make sense. Those of us who are earthbound persist in thinking that the larger universe is a profound vault bulging with the mysterious. Representations to the contrary, at least when meant as art, appear technical and prosaic. Even the best science-fiction is built on mysterious imagery.

Now we might give a try to forgetting what Ross’s pictures are about, and view them merely as visual abstractions, as gestures on the wall. This way we get unimpressive, graphic designer’s versions of certain trilobites. A true conceptualist, Ross has plunged an impassable gap between content and form, and then proceeded to reduce form to little but clean and functional craftsmanship. If he hopes thereby to steal a bit of science’s authority and prestige, he is nevertheless following an artist’s stratagem. His devices are, simply, weak ones; they are constrained by trend esthetics and mismatched with his subject matter as well.

Leo Rubinfien