Joe Guy

Adams-Middleton Gallery

Joe Guy’s paintings constitute a meditation on absence. “Volume of Hours,” 1986–88, is a series of books that open onto their own empty contents. Shelf, 1985, is a simple and elegant support for nothing. A series of small works from the past several years share the title “Homage: Deus Absconditus,” 1985–86. In each work, three pieces are hinged together like the sections of an altarpiece and covered completely with a dense, almost reflective black made of graphite and wax. There is a sense in Guy’s work that an image has been obliterated by this blackness, as though content had been consumed by a void. Blackness itself comes to serve as an image, establishing the tension between assertion and denial that informs Guy’s work.

Given this tension, it is not surprising that Guy’s images are created by a process that stresses the physicality of the objects. He stretches Japanese papers over wooden supports, forming a pattern of grids that is accentuated by the application of graphite and wax. The luster of these surfaces can give portions of the work the substantiality of an object cast in lead. By slightly varying the depth of the support or the texture of the surface, Guy causes some areas to hover above others.

Guy’s works are insistently present before the viewer, but they could hardly be less importunate in their public address. There is a silence about the work that invites the viewer to participate in the artist’s meditations. That invitation, however, is so understated that it is also a sort of a challenge, for there is something close to the numinous in this silence. As an epigraph to this show, the artist chose a telling quote from Rudolf Steiner: “Pure spiritual light is external darkness.” One senses that Guy has imposed silence and darkness upon himself in the course of his meditations.

Guy creates objects that attempt to engage spiritual realities with the directness of the greatest religious paintings of past centuries. He expresses those realities, however, through abstraction. By creating a series of works based on the proportions of various altarpieces, Guy has paid homage to his Christian heritage while allowing the works’ blackened surfaces to acknowledge the impossibility of direct, uncritical communication. The artist’s abstraction combines annihilating negation and dogged faith. In Black Mirror, 1989, an elaborate frame encloses three distinct black surfaces. One, with a dense, matte finish, lifts away from but still completely conceals the area beneath it. Another has slipped down to reveal a highly burnished, nearly reflective surface. All of the works are ultimately impenetrable. Christian mystics, seeking to behold the face of God, cried out in anguish when confronted with their own “dark night.” Guy speaks also of a frustrated desire for revelation, but he replaces the anguish of the Christian mystic with a faith in the search itself. His paintings exist as a testament of his drawing near to revelation.

Charles Dee Mitchell