Nicholas May

South London Art Gallery/Victoria Miro

Organized by the Cornerhouse in Manchester, concurrent shows at two London galleries presented Nicholas May’s newest paintings. In these works, metal or bituminous sealants—materials more commonly used on car bodies or roofs—are laid on canvas and then gouged and moved about with sticks; before it hardens, metal powder is sprinkled over the surface. The result is perplexing since the powder both highlights the contours of the manipulated sealant and gives the surface a flat appearance that resembles that of a photograph.

The series “Liminal,” 1993–94, creates the impression of going from one threshold to another, of flipping into another mode of address, almost as if switching the level of magnification on a telescope or microscope. One indulges in a range of observations from the interplanetary to the intramolecular.

May seems to have pulled these paintings of the last year with their newly engineered structure out of his more established approach, in which the fluctuations of representational possibility sit within a much more evident consideration of painting’s recent history. Several slightly earlier works in the show, for example, were made by pooling paints on a previously prepared, monochromatic ground, a technique May has been employing for some years. By tilting, running, and otherwise shifting them around, the colors mingle and interfere with one another without ever mixing to form a homogeneous tone. The two canvases in the series “Formless Fold” 1992–93, each contain a pair of thin, vertically elongated forms. They are not quite Rorschach blots, but they do suggest an equivalence: the same ingredients poured and tilted in very similar ways. It is impossible to resist the desire to read panoramic landscapes—mountain ranges, rivers, oceans, deltas, lava flows, cloudscapes, even galaxies—into the shapes that form. Their space is complex, not linear in its extensiveness but curving in on itself: encompassing rather than extending.

Metal powder mixed into the paint again generates the photographic illusion, but there is also another conversation going on here. The dried crust of pigment is heavy, which requires that the canvases be supported by sturdy stretchers. Their thick edges are painted white, forcing a distinction between the illusory nature of the painted surface and the substantial presence of the works themselves. In some respects, then, we are back in the old conversation with Frank Stella. Likewise, the activities of pouring and pooling reflect Morris Louis, as does the veillike shape in Guardian, 1993; Barnett Newman is there in the primary-colored grounds of “Formless Fold (Red)” and Guardian, and the numinous presences of these poured shapes, especially the suggestive triumvirate in Sacral, 1991, bring Mark Rothko to mind. But the acknowledgment of these artists is not overly reverential. Their earlier example has not subsumed May’s own interest in creating convincing illusion through the manipulation of paint. Never caught up in the game of reference and quotation as a means of justifying himself, May has, with his new works, moved further into territory of his own.

Michael Archer