New York

John Virtue

Louver Gallery

One would hardly know it from their morbid blackness and dramatic, gestural swirls, but John Virtue’s works are actually bound to a particular, somewhat isolated place in Devonshire. Indeed, images of specific sites exist underneath, and are sometimes visible through, the painterly turmoil, but they are injected, almost to the point of overdose, with the bleak intensity of Virtue’s own temperament. Taking earlier work as a point of departure—works in which unit after unit of a usually giant grid is filled with scene after grim scene—his latest paintings convey both his deep sense of isolation and his compulsiveness. The resulting works look like altarpieces in the valley of the damned—infernal memento mori for the still living, as though to wish them ill, even finish them off. These works bespeak terminal depression.

But such a reading ignores their artistic challenge: the intricate, tightwire walk between gestural abstraction and geometrically regulated representation. This has become a quite familiar, easily analyzed performance, but Virtue’s works go beyond the usual visual theater of the absurd to make an ontological point. Representation, they seem to insist, can only inadequately articulate the particularity of reality; and abstraction, whether gestural or geometrical (or some currently fashionable integration of both), still seems to miss what is most fundamental in visual art. Ultimately it is only the dizzying abyss, which appears in the cancellation of both what seems obviously real and fundamentally artistic, that can be “known.”

Virtue struggles to achieve this cancellation, to evoke the vertigo of the abyss. Through what sometimes seems like stylized Modernist “obscurity,” he succeeds, at times, in casting us into the nothingness of the void itself. Rather than affording a new “perspective,” his works are disorienting: in the end, they are about neither place nor painting, nature nor abstraction, but about the struggle to let go of obvious appearances, about the descent into the maelstrom of the abyss only to return to tell the tale, like the hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s story. Indeed, Virtue’s paintings seem to translate a species of English Gothic into visual terms. They reveal a demonic sensibility so haunted by itself it has no self, a sensibility so attuned to a specific place it has no sense of place. These paintings depict an inside-out transcendence—a blackened sublime. Virtue demonstrates that it is possible to make modern lack of faith into a kind of faith: not, as with the old Modernists, a faith in art, nor, as with the old mystics, in the deus abscunditas, but, rather, a faith in absence, ecstatically experienced.

The radical antisocial nature of Virtue’s work and life-style—he seems to mimic Cézanne’s isolation and solitude in his daily trek to a specific place (and like Cézanne, he can hardly be said to submit to it)—speaks of the power to endure the abyss of nothingness that the death of transcendence has plunged us into. Virtue gives us a negative spirituality, which is, no doubt, better than none.

Donald Kuspit