New York

Adam Ross

Caren Golden Fine Art

Among my adolescent souvenirs float vague recollections of science-fiction stories in which some stranded space traveler happens on a vast, beautiful city that, void of all inhabitants, somehow continues to run with perfect mechanical efficiency long after the disappearance of its builders. These fantasies, which were obviously connected to the threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over cold-war America, transformed the chilly irony of a humanity whose creations might be more powerful than itself into what I later learned to recognize as an idea of the sublime, that painfully pleasurable astonishment at the incommensurability of the merely human with the infinite.

It is this same idea that is invoked in the new untitled paintings and drawings of Adam Ross, all but two dated 1999, which, hovering tantalizingly between abstraction and landscape, present far-off, futuristic cities spreading themselves out—in perspectival grids or in irregular but concentric patterns like spiderwebs—against skies of saturated, chemical hue. (The drawings’ delicate black-and-white somehow captures the same eerily acidic light.) The four paintings are not large (all double squares, 24 by 48 inches), but they encompass great expanses, as though one were viewing the cities from a very high place, looking out rather than down from that vantage. The gemlike light of atmospheres that somehow manage to be at once crystalline and smoky draws the eye to search out their far reaches, the places where the cityscapes disintegrate into nondescriptive meshes of minute brushstrokes, each building along the skyline almost a tiny painting in itself—a sudden displacement of scale that renders the work as a whole all the more vast.

Ross’s subject may be an idea of the sublime, but his technique is just the opposite: precise, elegant, and refined rather than rough-hewn and wild. To say that is not an irony at his expense, as it would have to be if said of a painter even as oneirically effective as Caspar David Friedrich, who may be a distant precursor. Instead it is to point out why Ross evokes a feeling of contemporaneity in work that is so permeated by nostalgia, paintings so redolent of the ’60s that they can contain echoes of obvious sources like Ed Ruscha and Giorgio De Chirico alongside half-forgotten ones like Richard Anuszkiewicz (whose favorite trick of modulating the value of a colored line by shifting the color of its surround is everywhere in evidence here). Then there are influences that are so recherché I’m not sure I haven’t just dreamed them up, like Tanguy-influenced cover art for paperback novels by British “new wave” sci-fi writers such as Brian Aldiss or the pre-Crash J.G. Ballard. The jeweler’s precision with which Ross constructs these visions brings out their hidden pragmatism, the care for reality underlying such seeming fantasies. I have driven at night down from the foothills of Altadena, where Ross lives, and the city of Los Angeles, glowing in the distance, looked little different from the phantasmic architectural vistas in these paintings. Only missing were the cylindrical forms that float with the ominousness of the inexplicable through Ross’s skies. For the most part this shimmering, inhuman world, the one we imagined as children in the ’60s, is our own.

Barry Schwabsky