New York

Christopher Deeton

ATM Gallery

It’s not immediately clear how Christopher Deeton achieves the elementary symmetry evident in the three large paintings from his new series that were shown recently at ATM Gallery’s Twenty-seventh Street space. Revealing no brushwork, the ominous black shapes that inhabit these works hover like darkly numinous apparitions against their raw-canvas backgrounds. Formed by the pull of gravity, they are the result of the artist’s manipulation of support as opposed to medium. This method of moving the panels in order to direct the flow of pigment across their surfaces—at the constant risk of indelible false moves—suggests a certain meticulousness that resonates intriguingly with the paintings’ soaring, obelisk-like figures. Nevertheless, the only obviously chance effects occur at the works’ peripheries, as at the bottom edge of Number 64 (all works 2005), where pebblelike islands of inky pigment nestle. Deliberate paintings that also exploit arbitrary natural forces, they occupy a charged netherworld between the organic and the artificial in which the invisible hand of the divine appears betrayed.

This sense of covert control, of some private technique, is essential to the works’ sense of mystery. Their haunting totemic shapes suggest the vivification of experience occasioned by ceremony, when the intensely private—whether eros or death—is communally acknowledged. While the artist borrows from Minimalism and abstraction, he finally strikes an especially lyric note. In Number 53, a soaring phallic shape is flanked by two symmetrical appendages, yet the sexual aspect of the image, while frank, is handled in a way that remains respectful of the image’s sacral potential. In Deeton’s vision the natural can never be profane, and in borrowing forms so directly from nature, he seeks to restore an arguably neglected connection with the elemental world. The paintings variously recall the seductive severity of wild landscapes, the stylized representations of genitalia used in Hindu ritual, or the standing stones of ancient astrological observatories, and what is surprising is that such spare compositions should so insistently connote the primacy of the secret, the subtle, and the obscure. Yet for all such intimations, these are not canvases that shrink from the space they inhabit. Rather, they have a preternatural gravity that feels explicitly directed toward the viewer.

Deeton’s black-and-white paintings invite meditation on duality and balance, yet the drama of their swooping, precipitous lines and the often shadowy, ominous quality of their shapes also evoke the perennial necessity of choosing sides. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the artist’s earlier work—drizzled surfaces distinguished by their striking metallic sheen and dazzling chromatics—and his most recent series that casts the new work as a meditation on the grimmer aspects of our cultural climate, or as emblematic of the homuncular, resistant postures we are compelled to strike therein. If the earlier works were depictions of strange weather, these latter, encomiums to persistence, portray the weathered themselves.

Tom Breidenbach