New York

David Diao

Rosa Esman Gallery

It is said that there is modernist painting that does not argue—or rather, whose argument is purely visual. To reflect upon such painting one must be before it; it relies on ownership. And then there is modernist painting whose argument can be translated without undue distortion and thus possessed in a way that is not so blatantly consumerist.

I’m not sure how currently useful the distinction is; however, it sticks with me. When I first saw the work of David Diao, I thought of it in terms of the first category; I now see it more in terms of the second.

I do not mean that there is any painted word here, or any narrative to extract. Indeed, that this is unnecessary is one point that the painting makes. There are many more. For example, given the decomposition of its own motifs, the painting reveals that no object—or symbol even—is whole (i.e., separate); that figure and ground—and positive and negative space—are not distinct instances; that the terms of space cannot preexist the objects within it.

If this seems like a rehearsal of modernist ideas, it is. In part. And that would be my one criticism of Diao’s work: it manipulates an old language more than it articulates a new.

In a sense it is the obverse of Frank Stella’s early work, which was based on a crude materialist notion: that painting’s structure determines its content. The logic of this was so rigorous that “content” was all but eradicated; the paintings’ “containers” emptied themselves out. Diao’s work is concerned less with painting’s conventional structure than with its painterly ground: the way the motifs emerge from the canvas’ space is more important than the way they are defined by its armature. Nothing comes whole. “Containers” like circles and squares are not contained themselves; perhaps this is why the paintings seem so full and empty at once.

As Carrie Rickey says: “What David Diao does is employ the services of geometry to obdurately obverse ends.” In the paintings, geometry’s rage to order becomes a rage against order; it is made a system subversive of its own authority. This affects the paintings’ format too—paintings like Galileo and The Navigator work against the diptych and triptych; others, like Local Color, refuse to be divided into “top” and “bottom.” The work is full of circles, squares, crosses, and triangles—but none are complete, none are authoritative. Even the implicit functions and iconography of these forms are suspended. A circle turned arc or spiral may accelerate, rather than arrest motion and open, more than close composition; and a cruciform is likely to fracture, rather than bind the figure, ground, and support. Nor can one rely on a “physiognomy” of color (cools versus warms) or a hierarchy of tonal values. Diao seems as brash as Elizabeth Murray; in fact, he is quite skeptical.

Without a center, access to the paintings is difficult. Without a syntax, they are hard to read (if that is what one does). “Think now,” Diao seems to say as Eliot said of history, “She gives when our attention is distracted/ And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions/ That the giving famishes the craving.” It does seem that Diao would paint such confusions and contradictions. However, it is one thing to paint them and quite another to articulate them. Painting can be static and unfortunately Diao’s references are. Some titles refer to films (the dialectical art par excellence); others are simply slogans, like Division of Labor and History Lessons. These may be tongue-in-cheek; it’s hard to say. But Diao, so skeptical of authority, is not skeptical enough. It is all very well to enunciate ideas in a Marxian language, but one must beware not to be enunciated by that language.

Hal Foster