New York

John Torreano

Feature, Inc.

If one was to fully appreciate John Torreano’s recent exhibition “Scapes,” it helped to be familiar with the ancient Greek myth of Orion, the hunter, who was immortalized as a constellation by Artemis (sister of Apollo and the object of Orion’s love) after she killed him accidentally. The tragic story informs Orion’s Curtain (all works 2007), the show’s keynote work. A spray painting made directly on the gallery’s foyer wall, Orion’s Curtain was a swirling field of marks inset with wooden balls of various sizes marking the imagined positions of stars, and darkened by touches of charcoal signaling the texture of the sky. In this deceptively decorative manner, the interior of Feature, Inc. was transformed into a luminous celestial realm and the viewer into a heavenly body set adrift within it. These works are thus at once skyscapes and (to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term) “inscapes”—that is, they suggest the ecstatic convergence of outer and inner worlds.

Torreano’s cosmic emphasis was clearer still in the six moody gestural paintings hung in the gallery proper. Three of these are modest watercolors on paper, enhanced with touches of acrylic and charcoal, and three are much larger paintings, their surfaces a fusion of black gesso, acrylic, and spray paint, inset with wooden balls and glass and plastic “gems.” The mix of materials is crucial to the pictures’ lush resonance. (Larger scale and range of media notwithstanding, they are also reminiscent of Gustave Moreau’s introverted sketches.) All the large works are partitioned into grids, and this touch of geometrical severity in what are otherwise distinctly organic works allows one to zero in on segments of the scene as though viewing them through a sharply focused telescope. Thus Torreano positions us both as distant observers and intimate insiders, a simultaneity that goes some way toward conveying the romantic idea of a mystical fusion with the Beyond.

A Star(s) Is Born is the title of one work, and the star is Torreano—or rather, the figure of the artist as represented by Orion, with his premature elevation to heaven. Unlike Apollo and Artemis, who are true gods, Orion is a pseudo-god, a mere mortal made semi-immortal. And herein lies the irony that the work slyly puts across: The artist may be a giant among men, but his power is nothing compared to that of “the gods,” which secular postmillenarians might understand simply as the implacable indifference of the universe. Another irony: If the artist is a hunter, then he is by definition a killer, a predator.

Torreano’s mythopoetic allusion to Orion lends his abstractions a depth of meaning that rescues them from being mere Dionysian eye candy. Without such rich connotations they might be little more than lame duck AbEx rehashes. Clement Greenberg, after all, was wrong: “Spiritual” effect is not an illusion created by mastery of the properties of paint, but is grounded in recurrent myths of ourselves, myths that mere material can never live up to.

Donald Kuspit