New York

Dennis Masback

K&E Gallery

Dennis Masback, now in his late forties, has been exhibiting his work in New York for nearly two decades, a period punctuated by a moment of near-celebrity in the late ’70s during which his work was compared to that of Jasper Johns and Brice Marden. Characterized by beautifully reflective surfaces and the use of printing techniques, the seductively luminescent paintings of that decade revealed the material reality beneath the painterly illusion, accentuating the weave of the canvas and the lines of the support with the use of such devices as the painted “window frames” that characterized one series of works. Masback later extended his investigation of the language of painting to the landscape tradition in a group of works depicting outdoor scenes that he produced without leaving his studio. His “natural” vistas were actually constructed around a central element—a tree with bright-orange leaves, for example, isolated from the predominantly green foliage and mountains behind it—that dominates the foreground of the picture; in this way Masback marks not only the artificiality of his own landscapes but of the idealized visions that characterize the tradition itself.

His most recent works—which feature assorted flora and vegetables against opalescent grounds—are a quirky combination of the esthetics of abstract painting and the conventions of still life. These modestly-sized acrylic-on-board paintings consist of many layers of semitransparent acrylic paint, each separated by a watery coat of gloss medium to keep the colors from blending into a murky brown; the result is a multicolored, diaphanous haze through which assorted organic forms emerge. Some works possess the delicacy of 19th-century botanical watercolors; in others the plants or vegetables are rendered so perfunctorily that they become abstract shapes whose edges dissolve into the translucent surface of the canvas. In a few paintings, the organic objects have been painted in only to be painted out, and exist merely as ghostly outlines of themselves. Each painting is sealed with a final layer of gloss medium that gives the work a jewellike quality.

These works map a wonderfully enigmatic space, a territory somewhere between the seductive illusionism of still life and the carefully worked surfaces of abstract painting. Unlike Ross Bleckner’s luminous canvases with their sunflower-as-metaphor-for-rebirth-in-an-age-of-AIDS, Masback’s work presents a vision unencumbered by piety, pretense, and cant.

Justin Spring