New York

Cary Smith

Salvatore Ala Gallery

Cary Smith makes the kind of abstract painting—distilled, self-assured, historically conscientious without being mannered—that gives credence to Jürgen Habermas’ assertion that modernity, or in this case Modernism, remains “an unfinished project.” In composition, Smith’s paintings recall the ’50s (John McLaughlin, for instance) and in technique echo the ’60s (Brice Marden). Yet, they relate to the politics of meaning in a manner that reflects demands specific to the present—a time in which there is little concession to esthetic gratification—in part by resisting them. In an accompanying statement, the artist writes that in making the paintings exhibited under the collective title “In the Woods” he intended to take into account “perceptions of a continuing disintegration of our physical and emotional environment . . . to convey a sense of naturalness, space, and variation, while being infused with an element of man’s need for ultimate control.” Smith makes explicit the sentiment, so pervasive today, that art must justify itself through a sense of responsibility to the nonartistic factors that hem it in and that make esthetic satisfaction alone seem like self-delusion.

It is clear that Smith’s statement is no mere rationalization; for all his success in imbuing these paintings with freshness and spaciousness, with sensuous immediacy and downright beauty, they are deeply marked by a “protestant” rectitude readily recognizable to any Kantian or Shaker. The paintings are all symmetrical in both design and color; the palette is more varied than in Smith’s previous work. Gray bands frame and separate large rectangular blocks of color, often completely enclosing them but always leaving at least one of them open (that is, to the edge of the painting itself, not to an adjoining color area)—except in the smallest and simplest of them, Howl, 1993, which consists of a single, vertical, brown rectangle entirely framed by a gray band. There is no modulation within individual color areas, but the relationships among colors in each painting are carefully calibrated to create resonant atmospheric effects. Even the particular hue of the gray lines is attuned from painting to painting to elicit the strongest possible impression of an almost palpable aura breathing through the hard-edged divisions within the painted image and suffusing the space before it.

It is this brooding yet luminous atmosphere or aura—which, ineffable as it may seem, embodies the eloquence of these paintings—they cross their own carefully crafted respect for order and boundaries. These works offer a sense, not so much of clarity, as of clearing, a moment of removal from confusion or contradiction that does not efface or reject such conditions so much as allow for a perspective on them. This assumes neither some ultimate nirvana of clarity and disinterestedness, nor the impossibility of disengagement from messiness and complicity. Instead Smith proposes that with care one can attain an interval of detachment in which experience can be transposed into a reflection on experience, and that this very removal can register and implicate the reality that has been placed at a distance.

Barry Schwabsky