Los Angeles

Daniel Mendel-Black


At first glance the nine paintings that comprised Daniel Mendel-Black’s recent show at Mandarin might recall Gerhard Richter’s self-conscious “Abstraktes Bild” (Abstract Picture) canvases, with their layers of big-brush smears and scrapes, revealing and concealing color, sometimes in jarring combinations. But unlike Richter’s canvases, which methodically reenact reproduction of the photographic process with cool, if not cold, mechanized neutrality, Mendel-Black’s bring an unabashed lack of skepticism to abstraction, and seem almost eager to please. Compared to the assured perfection of his apparent forebear, Mendel-Black’s canvases occasionally appear tentative, if not clumsy, under scrutiny. Still, the results are frequently compelling.

While varying from just under two to just under six feet high, all twelve vertically oriented paintings follow a similar structural logic, relying on a woozy but insistent grid that provides the group with an obsessive seriality. (The show was too densely hung, adding to the intensity of this effect.) Mendel-Black starts each work with a loose weave of wide marks that serves as a background of sorts for an intersecting network of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal strokes. These structures, which look like architectural frameworks or diagrams of chemical compounds, seem to occupy a foreground, transforming the paintings into representations of pictorial space. The relatively large canvas #73 (all works 2006) offers the deepest illusory space, with an audacious assembly of ruby red and sienna over blurs of grayish-blue with dribbles and daubs of fluorescent pink and acid green. Color is what pries open space in these works: #75, given its reduced palette of black, gray, and silver, is resolutely flat.

Following a logic that seems consistent, if ultimately impenetrable, each of these paintings features one to four vertical elements applied as an almost vulgar spume of impasto oil and acrylic paint. These thick, textural marks are like objects (I want to call them“figures”) in the foreground and slow down the visual scanning of each painting. One might picture these as one would witness a body free-falling in a movie: Apprehended by a long lens, the body becomes stationary against a blurred background. The effect is often vertiginous.

The show was titled “The Paintings Are Alive,” and surely an allegory about the medium is somehow coded in these works. But are we supposed to buy the stale notion that painting ever “died”? Is the artist imagining these paintings as a pack of loping zombies arriving belatedly at the party? Given Mendel-Black’s admitted interest in science-fiction and horror films—he has frequently written on similar subject matter in print and on his blog, Kulturedrome—the potential for such signification is rich but ambiguous. While such outside information, including a manifesto-like artist statement written for the show, thickens the plot, ultimately it cannot determine the outcome of these paintings. If we are to accept the premise of the show’s title, these paintings live through difference: Each follows a rigorous structural logic yet emerges as a unique, individuated example in a relentless stream of potential variation. Beyond outmoded questions of taste, it is difficult to say if, or why, one is better than another. Still, as with falling bodies in movies, we anxiously wait to see how each one lands.

Michael Ned Holte