New York

Michael Venezia

Sperone West-Water Fischer Gallery

Michael Venezia's “Narrow Bar Paintings” are a series of horizontal 2 1/2-by-120-inch canvas-wrapped stretcher bars which have been sprayed against their narrow sides, with a mixture of lacquer, powdered glass, pigment, dye, silicone and powdered metal. These substances are not only chemically non-homogenous, but physically incompatible when aggregated; once sprayed, they begin to separate. As they travel across the surface heavier substances slow down and swell, while the lighter or more resinous ones continue moving to the bottom of the bar.

Venezia’s recent show consists of six bar paintings, four of a blue putty color, one in a rust color and one in a very dark khaki. All the paintings have been sprayed with this paint mixture under terrific pressure causing a thick flow to distribute itself over the narrow surface. The toughened yet once elastic and malleable paint covers the bars like tight membrane. Viewed edgewise, the glass and silica particles, having massed together, sluice in undulating striations through the ooze.

The works have the tidal temperament of oceans. The impact of the angled spray upon the oblong canvas creates “swells” which break like surf and are followed by small oscillations carrying light, granular material beyond the line of the “breaker.” Small gritty particles pill coarsely at the bottom of the narrow bars and peek out from under the shiny, billowing surge.

The human experience is very much linked to our awareness of the ocean. It is what dislocates continents and cultures from each other and it is what bridges them. Both an obstruction and a highway, the endless oceanic horizontal so often depicted in American painting epitomizes the panorama of the attainable and the unattainable, the reachable and the ineffable. Michael Venezia’s narrow bar paintings are hung 5 feet off the ground, an average eye level. The eye level, a horizontal, is also our horizon line. It is the line which defines our “up” or “down,” our “high” or “low,” our ground, our sky. Heaven and earth meet here and from this prow, there is perspective without a vanishing point.

The anatomy of Venezia’s painting surface is correlative to the customary surface structure of a painting except that here the canvas has not been tensed over an expanse, secured by stretchers; it is merely a stretcher sheathed with canvas—implicitly a “stretched canvas.” Like the primitive artist who will always depict E.H. Gombrich’s “characteristic shape” because it reads most purely and directly without phenomenological visual information, Venezia’s narrow bars are empirically pure paintings, stretcher and canvas without the inevitable illusion of depth or composition which a stretched canvas demands. But Venezia is neither a primitive nor a Minimalist. Although he works with an instrument characteristic of Minimalism, a high-pressure spray gun, the surfaces of his paintings are irregular and uneven.

Frank Stella once said that all he wanted people to see in his paintings was “the whole idea without any confusion,” the “single image.” Venezia’s concern is with condensation, of painting materials—incongruous substances are forced together through a nozzle; painting structure—a stretcher simply covered and tucked with hospital-cornered canvas; and painting composition—the reduction of a landscape, a plane, to a horizon line. The canvas-covered stretcher is a metaphor for Painting as the horizon line is a metaphor for Composition and Perspective. Venezia paints only the horizon line; the vistas are inherent and need not be restated. The canvas is only canvas; the stretcher is only a stretcher; the horizon line is only a line. Yet from the placid brow of these narrow bar paintings we sense undercurrents of life beneath the surface.

Judith Lopes Cardozo