New York

Rex Lau

Ruth Siegel

Rex Lau makes paintings that are what the early 20th-century avant-garde called pure plastic equivalents of the real world. His approach strongly recalls the early Modernist tradition of “abstracting nature,” with particular overtones of Cézanne and the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla. The best of the recent paintings that were on view here are works that not only show their connectedness to art-historical sources but also reaffirm the value of personal expression.

Untitled Landscape, 1986, is a small, almost square relief painting of a scene of trees in a forest. The trees are represented by a rhythmic arrangement of conical shapes, following both Cézanne’s principle of looking for geometric form in nature and the Futurists’ concept of energizing the canvas through the use of repeated rhythm of line. Once such influences have been noted, more visceral responses to the paintings striking physical qualities take over. Lau has carved the conical shapes out of Hydro-stone and then activated the flat surfaces with sensuous brushstrokes in oil. Each shape tends to thrust outward from the surface behind it, conveying a sense of nature’s vital force, an effect that is enhanced by the dramatic shadows and highlights.

The interpenetrating planar structures developed by Balla to depict motion in nature are recalled even more emphatically in Untitled Seascape/Large Wave, 1986, one of the large three-panel works displayed. Like Balla, Lau uses repetition not merely as a formal device but rather to describe his subject. Lau’s untidy rows of red planar fragments, with their triangular peaks pointing in a variety of directions, evoke the peculiar staccato ebb and flow of the ocean tide. This vivid sense of movement results from the spatial shifts and volumetric displacements that occur as the eye follows the configurations of the separate fragments and attempts to connect them (that is, situate them in relation to each other).

Lair refines these same strategies in another abstract landscape, The Truth about Painting, 1986, with its simplified but animated forms modeled after rocks, trees, and flora. What is most pleasing about this painting is the underlying harmony of the composition. From the balanced colors to the well-resolved graphic understructure and spatial tensions, the composition has an expansive integrity about it that is totally engaging.

Ronny Cohen