New York

Terence La Noue

André Emmerich Gallery

Terence La Noue’s paintings suggest one possibility for the rehabilitation of abstract painting: to charge its surface with as much archaic content as possible-to make it seem age-old, and through this temporal depth revitalize its surface space. In The Cradle of Mankind, 1985–86, collage traces of earth-colored, half-century-old African textiles are saturated with bright painterly touches, as though to demonstrate that the seemingly worn-out soil of field painting can be fertile again. In Lord of the Underworld, 1985–86, ghostly traces again give birth, this time to structures loosely interpretable as the skeletons of ancient boats, a motif that also appears in Danse Macabre, 1985–86. La Noue means his work to be visionary and latently narrative, as is apparent from these and other titles such as A Vision of Utopia and Somnambulist Narrative, both 1985–86, and The River Styx, 1986. The question is, does La Noue succeed—does his connotational layering of the flat surface give it a new declarative power?

Not quite, but enough to make the surface freshly interesting. It is not the “signing” of the surface that counts here, but rather the way the signing activates it, stirs it up as though from a long slumber, like some heroine from a story of the supernatural finding herself alive in a tomb and forcing her way out. La Noue is creating a mood, not really saying anything decisive. Yes, the old myths he wants to resurrect are decisive, but they’re present in his pictures not as narrative content but rather as atmosphere. Although there is something macabre and death-evoking in his surfaces, it is not specific to any archetypal story he might wish to tell—it is more a function of the way the canvas has been encrusted, acquiring the look of decay where it once was simply inert.

What is perhaps really most interesting about his pictures is the way La Noue signals his Modernism along with his “decadence,” perhaps intentionally expressing the decadence of Modernism. In many of the works there is a kind of vertical scale of colors on the edge of the canvas, signaling an allegiance to “pure art.” This allegiance is confirmed by the field’s careful division into sections, articulating its flatness and its independence from the free play of the signifiers that mark it. The flatness will endure longer than they will, even though they are signs of endurance. Because of this dividedness, however, the work remains a technical assertion of art, no matter how much it might draw us into the emotional underworld its glyphs suggest. La Noue draws back into art just when it ignites an intriguing spark of life, when his pictures might make us forget the difference between life and art—or might present art as a stimulus to life, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s sense. La Noue tries to be a tragic Dionysian, but by hanging on to an obvious sense of art he becomes a lame Apollonian. He shows us how much Modernism remains a compulsion repetition in today’s scene.

Donald Kuspit