Los Angeles

Eric Orr

Neil G. Ovsey Gallery

Eric Orr isn’t known as a painter, but for his broader interest in the perceptual process. Consequently, he is often clustered with Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Larry Bell, and Doug Wheeler, among others. Yet he sees himself as a primitive. His new paintings—monochromatic, lead-bordered voids with Barnett Newmanish zips, inlaid human hairs, gold-leaf gilding, and areas of the artist’s own blood—tend to support this self-conception. This is not to say that Orr is a shaman or a naive painter, but that his stance is essentially ontological, not purely phenomenological. The buzz in the eye matters less than the resonance in the soul.

To discuss these works in terms of the art of painting is almost irrelevant, except to say that they are painted well. Rather, it is helpful to think of them as psychic filters, alchemic systems, talismanic offerings, and prayers to the void. In some works, a crisp vertical line stands against a deep monochrome field. In others, rows of hairs are shaped into figure 9s and then covered with paint, and the prime numbers 2, 5, 7, and 13 are scratched, like cosmic tattoos, into painted surfaces. Orr calls these elements, including the blood, “nonretinal triggers,” and probably hopes for a kind of “zero at the bone” response in which our bodies are sympathetically attracted to the residue of his. Saturated with the figural, Orr’s paintings are the grossest kind of ground—not unlike, say, the Turin shroud. These are not pictures, but stains.

It helps to believe that the paintings are not about art, but a ritual approach to the void, and that Orr can use lead, gold, hair, and blood to poke infinity in the eye. But infinity is something we can only approach from the edge. The moment we claim some of its matter—the moon, a prime number, an icon—the further it recedes as an idea. The best we can do is aim sensitive plates at where it seems to be, and see what develops. Perhaps these are Orr’s sensitive plates; with them he presses hard against the void. So hard he bleeds.

Among the least phenomenological of Orr’s works, his new paintings are condensations of ideas about barriers, borders, scrims, and, ultimately, the gallery wall as a context for the contemplation of infinity. They anchor his concerns with the more ephemeral aspects of perception. At the same time, they assert the oneness of art and ritual, an assertion some viewers may choose to resist intellectually. But however they engage us, Orr’s paintings are not mere depictions of the void, but sedimentary filters through which he strains to experience it.

Jeff Kelley