New York

James Nares

Fawbush Gallery

Why do the drawings of an ex-filmmaker who only marginally made his mark in the late ’70s underground cinema in New York now command our interest? There is an originality and authenticity to James Nares’ work that comes not from a combative assertion of some new revolutionary esthetic but from a sensitively tuned subversion of expectations. The forces that stir the cultural stew in the arts today tend to be far subtler than the dramatic upheavals of an avant-garde. This generalization, though fragile, may account for the peculiar potency of Nares’ modest, unimposing oil drawings on paper, a large selection of which from 1982 to ’86 were shown here.

You look at these drawings and immediately you think, Okay, no need to invest much time on such minor graphic gestures—they seem as hurried and cryptic as the most thoughtless of signatures. Yet you look again. Once these pieces have conned the viewer into looking a second time, they’ve won. Then it is no longer a question of what is there but a gradual understanding that we can never fully decipher all that the picture has to offer. Perhaps the best art is only this: a sleight of hand, a trick that has us looking the other way while an object is moved from one place—or one meaning—to another. While we pause to reconsider the unremarkable in Nares’ art, it has already become something much more. Suddenly it is the ugly duckling that we have fallen horribly in love with, the arbitrary accident that has hidden significance, the dumb grunt that speaks volumes. Dramatic changes in our experience of things always seem like magic. Usually, however, they’re just inconsistencies of perception and not miracles of physical transformation. What one ultimately sees in a drawing by Nares is nothing new—that is, whatever is there has been there all along. It just takes some time for us to discover it.

The magic in Nares’ art may be simple, but it is by no means superficial. In their strong resemblance to calligraphy these drawings force both semiotic and pictorial readings. The unspecificity of the images, rather than negating their intellectual or emotional content, allows for a multiplicity of interpretations, like skeletons whose flesh has yet to be filled in. They are deceptively casual, primitive yet refined, unfinished yet complete. If we instinctively regard his art as lacking something, it is not because Nares has deceived us; we have merely misunderstood him. His stylistic sense of restricted self-expression is not a reduction but a condensation of meaning. What Nares has retained from his long romance with Super-8 filmmaking (which I hope he will some day rekindle) is a sensitivity to the intangible anatomy of artistic substance. Every line he sets down is like a shadow puppet that casts a multitude of lines, the most basic figure implying a web of possibilities. Nares uses gesture and symbol as elusive impressions of personal experience, metaphors that invisibly connect the artist, the art, and the viewer through space and time.

Carlo McCormick