New York

Michael David

Hamilton Gallery

Michael David’s wax and oil paintings air a Victorian heroine’s modest yet expectant certainty of homage to her beauty. Nevertheless, one comes away impressed by the intelligence which manufactures their beauty: they are so modulated, so balanced, so fair, trained to accommodate many different tastes without appearing compromised. They delight in surface but believe in form—cut-out or raised planes intersect the visceral wax buildup; they are thematically steadfast and reasonable, reassuringly reverting to an earlier concern—the cruciform—but attenuating it, discretely alluding to it rather than insisting on it. They are cultured, they can compare and contrast Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still or Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Louis with convincing authority. And they are finely sensitive, even (subtly) erotic, appreciative, for instance, of the unyielding hardness of the cross against the melting sorrow of the flesh.

These are virtuosic displays of informed good taste, truly classical balance. They achieve everything they set out to achieve. But there may be a problem with their premise, namely, that excess can be approached rationally. The paintings push transcendence and/or exorbitance. The domineering abstract wedge, most recently invoiced by Julian Schnabel, is the central cohering event for David, but he softens it, bleeds it, robs it of its imposition. It’s flayed, like Marsyas (the satyr skinned by Apollo), a name aptly dropped in one of the titles. Even when it cracks open the space like a bomb, we seem to catch the moment after the fluorescence, or, frequently, some later passage when revelation has shrunk to a glimpse, to patches peeking through an occluded surface—the afterglow within the mushroom cloud. Color comes closer to transcendence since David sometimes applies the waxy texture before the paint so that stroke has nothing to do with hue. The effect is of a release of vapors into the atmosphere; color has left its shell, like a soul migrating out of the body.

Basically, though, David does not care for extremes; he is instead a master of betweenness. Note Between Dusk and Dawn, 1982–83, where, although the incised geometry aligns one reference to the sun rising and falling correctly, the effect in the dusk half of the diptych is perversely one of darkness being squeezed up and out by flanks of light, while dawn, on the other hand, is put upon, unable to rise. Like Apollo, David would find Marsyas and his flute inharmonious. He’s an Apollonian, expressing sympathy for but not empathy with the ecstatic.

Jeanne Silverthorne