New York

Hap Tivey

Blum Heiman Gallery

In front of an Impressionist painting the eye differentiates between the individual brushstrokes and the composite picture. At a given distance the painting coalesces. So with Hap Tivey’s beautiful shadow boxes. A smokily translucent plastic mat (actually called “pola-coat,” used in rear screen projection) is stretched over a frame about three inches in front of the canvas. From a few feet away the eye, presented with the two surfaces, has trouble focusing. This gives the work an ethereal quality: the mat is like a slightly luminous mist clinging to the painting. It is also, in Tivey’s words, “a plane that intersects the light from the painting. Any surface is a source of light—some reflection, some absorption. The mat surfaces display the reflected light of the paintings.” In some areas this reflected light is intense, in others it shifts as one rounds the shadow box, for on the obfuscated canvas Tivey uses silver and aluminum foil as well as acrylics.

The luminous mist quality is particularly effective in view of the unabashedly Japanese subject matter: for the most part, arched walking bridges and lonely Fujiyama-type mountains. But while the references are obvious, the subjects are transmogrified. The bridge paintings, for example, tend to be no more than subtly arched forms connecting two masses, presumably land or stone. There is nothing extraneous here, or in the simple, sacred mountains rising above plains of land or cloud. They are wonderfully obsessive, the luminous, floating masses of color. Fuzzy and clear at once, they seem to mirror shapes stored deep in our brain, behind consciousness, shapes we know well and not at all, like certain chance-glimpsed configurations of cloud.

The largest and most impressive work in the show is of neither a mountain nor a bridge. Unshown in the usual photographs of the Ryoan-ji garden, one of the best known of the Japanese formal raked-sand and rock gardens, is the red ceramic wall that contains it. Tivey, who lived in Japan for a year, was not only taken by the beauty of the wall but intrigued, as he puts it, “by the idea of the wall being as beautiful, or more beautiful, than the garden itself.” This garden wall, along with another with a famous mountain view beyond it, inspired Red Wall. To say that it has a bold central band of red and misty white masses in foreground and background is to say little, for as in Impressionist painting (and perhaps more relevantly, Rothko), it is light, its illusion and allusion, that intrigues us in this and in all Tivey’s work. I think it is the quality of the luminosity (the eery glow of the red in Red Wall) that appeals to me most: it is uncanny but never garish. The works of art seem to approach and recede; the surfaces are alive, mysterious, because you cannot quite “get” them.

Tor Seidler