New York

Ruth Pastine/Frederick Holland

Deven Golden Fine Art

In a recent joint exhibit with Ruth Pastine, Frederick Holland presented two white tables of darkish bronze sculptures. Half a dozen pieces were arrayed on a circular table with a small hole cut out of its center, while the other table, in the shape of a Greek cross, held one sculpture on each of its four arms. The bronzes are intimate in scale, complexly textured, and variously shaped (some are elliptical, others circular or gourdlike). Some appear to be solid, while others have openings that suggest vessels. All are marked by various combinations of patterning—grooves, ridges, slits, or spikelike projections. A kind of hatching covers the surface of a number of the pieces, almost like scarification. They seemed to invite touch, and closing my eyes, I ran my hands over several; the effect was electric—even more peculiar than their visual appearance.

These enigmatic, evocative objects—relics of some forgotten ritual, or ornaments of some new one?—were surrounded by Ruth Pastine’s seven nearly monochromatic square paintings, meticulously executed with a small brush to achieve a uniform surface. The works have an amorphous, inner luminosity that bleeds into seeming infinity. Pastine has painted from the center to the edges, the color dissipating as it moves outward; three that are gray at center shading to lighter blues create an illusion of concavity, while two, more intensely blue in the center, seem convex. While the works are clearly involved with optical perception, Pastine also acknowledges a debt to the New Mexico mystical painters (of whom Georgia O’Keeffe was one) in their contemplation of the metaphysical implications of light and color. Her works regard the retina as opening into what was once referred to as the soul.

Holland’s and Pastine’s works are perfectly paired, the intense tactility and materiality of his objects diametrically opposing the intangible space of her paintings. I want to argue that these two bodies of work implicitly—if perhaps unwittingly—embody the dualism of gnostic cosmology. Gnosticism holds that the infinity of light is the signature of the divine, and that darkness (that is, matter, which absorbs light) is the signature of the demiurge responsible for the physical universe. The multifarious combinations of motifs in Holland’s sculptures point toward the material possibilities of demiurgic creativity, while Pastine’s paintings render the moment of revelation (“gnosis”) of the divine, when the latent divinity of the self, its consubstantiality with the godhead, becomes spontaneously manifest to it in a flash of illumination.

All of which, undoubtedly, sounds questionable if not silly from the prevailing formalist and theoretical views of art. Yet the mysticism Pastine and Holland demonstrate in these works points the way to a future beyond those conceptions, and out of the equally reductive pitfalls of over-intellectualization and technical analysis. For these artists, the resources of art—modernist art, no less—exist paradoxically to articulate what otherwise can’t be articulated; more particularly, to make us conscious of the ineffable within ourselves, and thus to appreciate the fact of our being, with its demiurgic power for both good and evil. That is a grander task than most contemporary art is wont to assume.

Donald Kuspit