New York

James Nares

Paul Kasmin Gallery (511)

James Nares’ recent abstract paintings would never lead one to suspect that he not only has behind him a body of impressively quirky figurative paintings, but that he has also worked in media as diverse as super-8 film, photography, and music (in the ’70s he was a guitarist for the Contortions). Indeed, it is unusual for an artist of such diverse orientations to become entrenched in a practice that usually attracts die-hard lifers.

In Nares’ recent paintings the constituent brush stroke becomes the image—the means, the end. Over a luminous, even, white field, textured or tinted only by an occasional overpainted drip or partially concealed brush stroke, Nares applies no more than five discrete colored strokes, limiting his palette to gray, ocher, indigo, and umber. Working with brushes he designs himself, he creates elegant gestures cleanly separated from the ground and from each other.

E/A/F/W (all works 1991) contains four such strokes, positioned one on top of another, like a list. The top gesture is a dense, gray, horn-shaped mark. Beneath it is a pale, goldish-green, washy scumble that hovers over a straighter, deep-umber dash, which narrows as it continues off the painting’s edge. The bottom of the image contains a wavelike wash of indigo. Though the brush strokes do not blend into the white ground, they are not as absolutely divorced from it as, for example, Jonathan Lasker’s agglutinations of paint, which look as if they had been applied to the surface in one piece. Due to the transparency of the strokes, the white ground bleeds through them, deftly balancing integration and separation in an almost too perfectly lyrical figure-ground relationship.

A more reduced painting, entitled Walk On, contains a vertical row of four dark-gray brush strokes, which start off narrow and end up as wide dabs that are as identical as things governed by random laws can be. The marks are not literally textured but are almost illustrations of texture, in which the trace of virtually every brush hair is visible. In this respect, they are reminiscent of the black gestures of Japanese calligraphy, in which the brush is pushed into the paper at the end of each stroke. In this group of paintings, Nares presents a kind of taxonomy of brush strokes. Walk On displays the disparities among various types of marks, whereas E/A/F/W suggests an ordered roster of types.

Walk On in particular possesses the photographic quality that characterizes this body of paintings generally. In 1990–91, Nares produced a series of giant abstract photographs; he called them “Luminographs,” and they were, simply stated, photographs of moving light sources shot with long exposure times. This process results in photographs that suggest facsimiles of brush marks that are almost painterly in appearance.

In these recent paintings the brush strokes, with their emulsionlike lack of surface texture, luster, transparency, and clean separation from the ground, suggest the use of photographic emulsion on canvas. Indeed, it is this photographic semblance that is Nares’ most distinctive painterly trait, a characteristic his work shares with that of painter David Reed, who creates dense swirls that resemble a photo-derived image but are, in fact, the products of straight painting. In Nares’ work this semblance creates an internal dialogue between gesture and mediation, immediacy and delay, action and stillness.

Matthew Weinstein