San Francisco

John Meyer

Mincher/Wilcox gallery

Even among Bay Area painters, John Meyer is a strict abstractionist. Although he sets rigorous limits on his work, he puts it through big changes from one show to the next. In 1985, he had a show of work that consisted of rectangular sheets of lacquered aluminum. They marked Meyer’s attempt to produce a perfectly true—that is, flat and uninflected—surface. Yet their material qualities were subsidiary to their optical effect: acting as mirrors, they improved the appearance of anything glimpsed in them. Meyer went on to make a series of monochromatic red lacquer paintings on stretched butcher paper. Their finish — hard, slick, and seemingly brittle—rhymed nicely with the tension of the stretched paper. A ghost of the strainer bars impressed itself on each lacquered sheet from behind.

There is much more evidence of the artist’s hand and more nuance of color in Meyer’s most recent show, which comprised oil paintings on canvas. Against the local background of figurative art, Meyer’s work tends to look more polemical than it is intended to be. It is as matter-of-fact as Robert Ryman’s early paintings, but without disavowing color, gesture, or optical ambiguity. One of the striking things about Meyer’s show was the variety of pictorial depths and atmospheres in his paintings, given their unremittingly methodical character. Wind Light K812, 1987, is covered entirely with abrupt, arced brushstrokes of warm white. No brushstroke appears to duplicate another exactly, yet there is not an expressionistic touch on the surface. In K-Lime, #10, 1987, many thin brushstrokes produce an impression of permeable pink atmosphere that turns out to have an adamant solidity at the heart of it, as though it were painted on stone rather than canvas. As it happens, both these pictures were made outdoors, in direct response to conditions in the Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco. They conjure memories of light and space without themselves being spatial. Whatever observations lie behind them have been sublimated perfectly into abstraction. There is no weakening, illusionistic slack at their edges that might turn them picturesque. In each case, the fabricated object is respected as the sole touchstone of reality available to painting. Meyer’s plein-air abstractions are as unsentimental as the rest of his work, though seemingly less obsessive.

Some of Meyer’s surfaces are almost as congested as though less burdened with paint than those of Milton Resnick. But where Resnick’s canvases tend to look as impenetrable as masonry, Meyer sometimes allows murmurs of color to seep up from beneath the topmost layers of paint. Full Four, #4, 1987, from a distance, has a salmon-orange cast. Up close, its surface turns out to be a lacework of paint with an even warmer golden-orange tone shining through from behind it. The biggest risk in this kind of painting is its daring to be beautiful, beauty being too seductive (and therefore too easy) a way to secure the viewer’s attention. Meyer can make beautiful paintings that look sophisticated without irony, and that are uncompromised by reminiscences of Color Field formalism. He paints as if unswayed by his work’s elegance, as though his methods had more theoretical, but hidden, ends in view. Meyer’s attitude is a skepticism toward whatever cannot be known by direct experience or by the practice of a discipline such as painting. That must be why his art is still alive with the sort of adversarial energy that is supposed to have deserted abstract painting decades ago.

Kenneth Baker