New York

Nabil Nahas

Holly Solomon Gallery

In this series of untitled acrylic paintings from 1988, Nabil Nahas moves away from the opulent, congested surfaces he has favored in the past. Nahas took tactility and materiality to an extreme in his thickly encrusted gold canvases. Now the decadent decorativeness of those pieces has given way to a more controlled, discreet, but no less dramatic approach to painting. These large canvases are primarily atmospheric. Moments of expressivity are reduced to bursts of red paint that Nahas places strategically over brooding dark backgrounds. While the older pieces were dazzling in their abundance of metallic tones, mere traces of silver weave in and out of these evenly painted dark gray grounds.

The paintings that work best are the largest canvases. In these pieces, the feverish red splotches float like searing flames on a night sky. Nahas sets up an obvious but convincing contrast between a cold, enigmatic abstraction and a highly charged expressionism. The difference in moods within one canvas elicits enough tension to make the paintings lively and hypnotic. The willful restraints that the artist places on his automatic gestures is an apt metaphor for the current restrictions placed on passion. Indeed, the scarlet-red explosions can be interpreted either as gorgeous signals of intuition or as references to sores and welts. At times, these amorphous shapes seem embedded within the dark, serene surfaces like wounds.

Nahas’ style changes somewhat throughout the show, with varied results. When the artist incorporates pieces of wood in certain works, they tend to revolve too much around formal issues. A more challenging and problematic work here is a painting characterized by a relatively flat scarlet ground. The marks on the work’s surface seem like quick, automatic notations. Hesitant marks of gold and amorphous stains of black pick up the canvas texture and disrupt the seamless ground. This piece in particular is a departure for Nahas, for in it he puts aside a certain amount of control in order to allow pictorial space to crumble in an exciting and unusual way. Another horizontal canvas is more turbulent and aggressive. The prevailing backdrop is chaotic, with a rough physical texture peeking through jet black paint. In the right corner, metallic patches appear like lesions on the picture plane; they are caught in a torrential whirlwind of gestural black and gray markings. The metallic patches merge with the dark areas of paint, making the red splatters look diluted and tenuous. Nahas seems to be searching for new modes of expression while continuing to guide the viewer through uncommon pictorial terrain.

Jude Schwendenwien