Los Angeles

John Tremblay

Richard Telles Fine Art

Critic Bob Nickas wrote recently that John Tremblay’s Open Plan Living, 1999, a spectacular, almost forty-foot-long painting, “seemed like a statement, and it’s rare to find that these days. Most artists make their statements in interviews, or when they go blab on panels or in art schools, or when they write their press releases. So it feels like an event to walk into a gallery and see that a statement is actually being made by the work itself.” Open Plan Living is indeed a defiant statement, primarily about—well, that’s the crux—painting and utopian communication.

Tremblay’s newest works, on view recently in Los Angeles, resulted from the free flow of ideas that can occur after the struggle of making a grand thing. In Brooklyn Year Zero, 2000, the artist sets up many of the issues emblematic of his project. On a dove-gray field are situated two forms: a spiraling corridor of ovals in eye-popping red on the left, and, on the right, a rainbow in dulcet gradations of gray, from grime to white to lead. You could begin to see a narrative about the new millennium, about, say, moving away from confining older structures (the cell of the maze/corridor) toward hopefulness. Yet what the artist refers to as a “ghetto rainbow” is clichéd and dingy. In any case, such a narrative would reveal no more than would figuring out what gray or dizzying red might mean. The question is not what Tremblay’s paintings are “about,” but whether paintings are ever “about” anything. His challenge is to avoid the obvious come-on of metaphorical narrative or art-historical reference while being securely in control of the knowledge of precedent—i.e., to have some serious fun.

Questions of interpretation and meaning present themselves throughout Tremblay’s work. Are abstraction and nonrepresentation always distinguishable from each other? And are these always distinguishable from representation? See the greige ovals in a web of mauve lines against the powder-blue sky of Karst Action, 1999, which seem to form a geological pile. (The title bolsters this impression; a karst is an irregular limestone region that changes according to underground water flow.) The hot pink freaking the cut-out spaces between the conversation bubbles in “Lost” (Including “Found”), 2000, nods to Fontana: Which has more hermeneutic gravity, color and pattern or art-historical troping? Put bluntly, these toothy, hedonistic paintings challenge by examining how fun can destabilize the rationality of any discourse.

All the ramifications of Tremblay’s thinking cohere in the knockout Magma, 2000, a heap of black-outlined, fluorescent-red ovals almost obscuring a black blob behind it. Between the ovals is a metallic silver gray, and the entire thing operates on a mint-green canvas. Depending on where a viewer stands, Magma has different effects. From a distance, the bottom of the painting looks partly scalloped, following the shapes of the ovals; from a middle distance, the tarry blob seems to constitute its own plane behind the ellipses, which appear to float; from close up, the informe distends and becomes part of the oval outlines, seeming to throb as it merges and disengages with them. The molten flow and the piling up of shapes suggest Smithson, particularly his 1966 drawing A Heap of Language, and yet the color and phenomenological effects, the tar mound’s seeming at first to be its own thing and then not, demonstrate that the visible is structured by the unseen, mis-seen, and unseeable and call for a word other than the curiously anachronistic term “futuristic”—a word as outmoded as many of the programs for understanding how abstraction in paint is understood, if “understanding” is even the right concept.

Bruce Hainley