New York

Juan Uslé

Robert Miller Gallery

There has been talk lately of a resurgence of formalism in contemporary art. If this implies a return to Greenbergian purity, a cordoning off of media and genres into segregated “areas of competence,” such an assertion would be hard to verify. That is, if for example Juan Uslé—abstract painter that he is—can be called a formalist, it is only in the sense that the term might apply to an artist as different from him as Jessica Stockholder. Both these artists stage elements of diverse, sometimes conflicting formal vocabularies and make them perform, but not necessarily in their accustomed roles. Uslé sets pictorial structures askew, leading them in the direction opposite to the one in which they appear to be heading. Apparently incapable of creating a surface that’s anything other than suave and unruffled, no matter how intricate its construction, Uslé, in his larger works, often challenges this facility by daring himself into compositions that he just manages to save from an irredeemable awkwardness or instability. Although his paintings have always been slippery, there is a greater degree of illusionism involved in some of his new work—not only spatial illusionism but also an almost trompe l’oeil impersonation of material textures, so that portions of El Placer Se Ha Ido (The pleasure has gone; all works 1995) and Tres Historias y Una Sombra Sobre Fondo Rojo Encendido de Celos (Three histories and shadow on red background lightened with jealousy) give the impression of having been sewn together from strips of watered silk or some equally shimmery fabric, while Lunada (When the night has a full moon) looks as if it were painted on leather.

One could say that Uslé’s work emerges from a dialectic of system and whimsy, the former more visible in paintings like Sueño Reversible (Reversible dream), as well as in many of his smaller, étude-like paintings (for instance Shöji y Vacio [Shoji and emptiness]), with their intricate allover patterning, the latter in such works as Minisculas con Dormidina (Lowercase with sleeping pill) and Eolo, Sueño Blanco (Aeolus, white dream), in which the spatial cues are either lackadaisical and seemingly arbitrary or else jammed in disjunctively. But Uslé is too sly to insist on clear-cut distinctions between the whimsical and the systematic. In the paintings dominated by patterning, which often seem inspired by woven or printed textiles, there is little of the flatness of ’70s pattern-and-decoration art, which was often inspired by fabrics in more literal ways. Instead, Uslé’s patterns are fundamentally overlays of distinct and often shifting planar strata, so that within the steadily rhythmic, modular stability of the whole there are many local transitions from surface to depth and back again. That is, the paintings always have a genuinely pictorial structure and not just a graphic one, and these are not immune to internal contradictions and surprises. More startling perhaps is the perfect lucidity with which the intricacies of the more overtly complex paintings unfold. The stylistic composure with which these are set down implies impressive foresight; one begins to suspect that even the maddest of Uslé’s spatial yokings has been contrived with determined method.

Barry Schwabsky