New York

Peter Grass

Barbara Braathen Gallery

Peter Grass first exhibited his schematic drawings of space figures set upon black-painted canvas in the early ‘80s. THe work looked indistinguishable from much of the rather nondescript, cartoonlike caricature being produced at the time. Now, with more of the East Village art returned to the rubble from which it sprang, Grass’ persistent development of an idiosyncratic vocabulary and mode of expression has rescued his paintings from the junk heap.

Today, Grass' futuristic pictograms of figures and planets seem like anachronistic prophesies from a once-thriving civilization. His repainted tree fungi evokes this archaeological effect best. In Anima Mudi, 1986, a planet crowned with towering antennae, and a flying spaceman trailed by a chain of interlocking infinity curves, are painted against a black field on the surface of a large tree mushroom. The scene testifies to a Babel-like civilization: the tower look like ladders bridging outer space to connect the planets. The composition is gravityless: all of the elements float within the microcosmic infinity of the black space. White pencil markings set against black create a fossilized effect. The sparse coloring of these pieces is mute and faded, like the shadowy polychromy that is barely visible on antique artifacts. They seem to have been dug from an excavation site, and they function like the petroglyphs in the American Southwest, as documents of a dying culture.

However, the work does more than testify to a dying age. In a painting such as Magic Carpet, 1988, Grass exploits the tension between the two- and three-dimensional (described by art history's carpet paradigm) by rendering three-dimensionality, in the form of celestial infinite space, on a two-dimensional field, that of a rug. This piece is more direct, less caricatured than his earlier work, without sacrificing any of that work's wit. The pictorial format, which is more conversant in the history of its medium, develops a tension between public language of culture. By expanding the references to more general themes Grass references documents a lost civilization whose boundaries extend beyond the East Village.

Kirby Gookin

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