New York

Ross Neher

David Beitzel Gallery

Translating broad sweeps of atmospheric space and light into densely corporeal surfaces, Ross Neher’s abstract paintings, for all their maestoso formality and distance, touch on powerful and disturbing paradoxes of contemporary painting and its critical reception. Neher’s is a thoughtfully historicizing approach. A reading of his theoretical essays confirms what the paintings themselves intimate: that they are the fruit of a principled conservatism in esthetic matters. They attempt to graft the compositional elaboration of high European painting back onto aspects of American abstraction—the equalizing grid is rarely far from the surface of these paintings—which was once supposed to have displaced that tradition.

Perhaps because he holds so strictly to his sense of visuality as both the origin and destination of painting, Neher’s work ends up reaffirming, instead, the blindness at the heart of vision as well as the synesthesia at its margin. These paintings constantly cue their viewer to see them in terms of naturalistic composition, though one that is rendered fluid, unstable, volatile. Figurative reference is almost completely effaced, and a connection to the tradition of sublime landscape is only guardedly acknowledged, mostly through the intensities of bright color that suddenly but inevitably sweep out of moody shadowings. However, unlike most abstract painting with naturalistic space, in which one detects little more than an uneasy compromise or an irresolute eclecticism, in Neher’s paintings one senses a very specific perceptual/conceptual operation at work. It is as though the very process of vision were a voiding of its ability to grasp the thing seen. No longer capable of maintaining its object at the remove of representation, seeing grasps it so greedily as to absorb it into the opacity of the perceiving body itself—thus subsuming sight within a broader field of fundamentally tactile prehension.

The operative mode of perception within these paintings, however, is not necessarily the one elicited by them. The ecstasis they evoke is contained, distanced, almost sealed off as an object of memory and melancholic contemplation by the constraint of the easel-painting conventions through which the work is presented—but not without a struggle. The traces of this struggle are precisely what invest the best of these paintings (Femme, with its unexpected echoes of Cubism, Adagietto, and Largo [all 19931]) with an emotional immediacy that transcends the artist’s urge to secure his find within the sealed-off zone of art. A detail such as the repeated tendency of the painted surface to slip perilously—or, literally, groundlessly—off the upper edge of the canvas (sometimes also exposing the canvas ground as well as underlying colors at the bottom) testifies to painting’s inability, when pursued with intensity, to stay within its boundaries—even when that rigorous containment is the apparent object of pursuit.

Barry Schwabsky