New York

Juan Uslé

How does the use of light in photography—a medium that takes the inscription of illumination as its own identity—differ from its wider, deeper, more idiosyncratic application in painting? The question is as old as the camera, and there are as many answers as there are beholders. But despite its constancy (or perhaps because of it) artists still engage the issue, as Juan Uslé’s exhibition of separately conceived but clearly interdependent paintings and photographs attested.

Titled “Luz Aislada” or “Light Isolated,” the show consisted of six paintings and twelve Cibachromes, the latter taken from a newly published portfolio of fifteen photographs collected under the same title. Common to both bodies of work are lush color and architectonic order, space understood as shallow and abstract. Although Uslé rarely exhibits his photographs, he has been making them since the ’70s. But primarily he is a painter, and in this medium his area of interest has been the time-honored dyad of color and line. Applied in thin layers of wash, his colors are saturated, at times vibrant to the point of boldness, at times muddy and somewhat brooding. Color defines the works’ moods, but line gives them their character—at times nervous and scribbly, but for the most part insistently architectural, structured around a kind of twirling or torqued grid. Light, here, has no clear source and occupies a mostly metaphysical plane, as the activating impulse of the paintings’ flat but tightly constructed spaces.

Uslé has said that he wants to “explore those spaces that exist in between things,” and this impulse is most evident in the photographs—in a snatch of luminous waves breaking through the empurpled silhouettes of two boats, blue-white gaps glowing between what seem to be the slats of venetian blinds, or the mullioned, tapering panels of a glass dome. Often close-ups, the photographs are sensuous but cool; their intense hues and shiny surfaces sliding at times into the visual vernacular of advertising in a way that does not fully suit their basically formal subject matter.

In the era of photography’s most heated competition with painting, it sought to capture the incidental detail, to isolate—and thereby invest with autonomous beauty—fragments of buildings and objects that the nonphotographic eye overlooked. In this sense, in spite of their glossy finish, Uslé’s images are somehow old-fashioned. Composed of stripes and rectangles, measured curves and allover patterns, they celebrate the interaction not of ideas or contexts, but of pure shapes: a lightning sliver of white-painted bricks cutting through an otherwise shadowy industrial space; a cherry-red block of upholstery sharply focused against a background of total blur.

In the end, however, it’s their formal ingenuousness that gives the photographs their appeal. Hung in diptychs and triptychs, their patterns set up congruences and dialogues, so that a picture of a white electrical cord snaking across a red-painted floor managed to echo both its neighboring image—a woman photographed from above in a bathtub filled with milky blue water, her spine another sinuous curve—and the gestural sweeps and dashes of each painting in the room.

Frances Richard