Clem Crosby, Vintage Valve, 2011, oil on Formica mounted on aluminum, 30 x 24 x 1 1/4".

Clem Crosby, Vintage Valve, 2011, oil on Formica mounted on aluminum, 30 x 24 x 1 1/4".

Clem Crosby

Rachmaninoff's Smith/Arnatt

Clem Crosby, Vintage Valve, 2011, oil on Formica mounted on aluminum, 30 x 24 x 1 1/4".

I don’t think that Clem Crosby’s work is mainly derived from Abstract Expressionism (or any of its European cognates), despite some evident commonalities: the emphasis on gesture and improvisation; the play between form and formless, between plasticity and the inarticulable. Instead, I’d wager that his work stems from the cooler, sometimes even deadpan, formally buttoned-up (yet still fundamentally intuitive rather than systematic) abstraction that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s alongside Minimalism—the art of Robert Ryman, for instance, or of Imi Knoebel. Crosby’s recent show included four large vertical paintings in a double-square format just over eight feet tall, all from 2007 or 2008, and three much smaller, near-square pieces painted this year. Some of the works (The Greeks, 2007, Suck, 2008, Prophet, 2011) use an implicit grid structure, loosely adhered to in freehand brushstrokes sometimes densely overlapped; particularly in the somewhat earlier paintings, these might recall certain works of Günther Förg. Where the grid is effaced or nearly so, there is nonetheless a rhythmic patterning of the marks that still implies its potential underlying presence—the spatial equivalent of a metronomic beat that a musician might have in mind, though the listener never hears it. Crosby used to paint monochromes, but in his more recent paintings, it is as if what earlier on would have been a single, tightly woven mesh of colors resolving into a single allover color complex was being untied, its weave opened up for inspection, the various strands brought to the surface one after the other. Elegant informality meets analytic intensity. Yet the paintings retain a sense of lyricism, not despite but because of the way they emphasize pulse over impulse, though the closer they seem to falling apart the better they are—top honors in that regard going to King Heroin, 2011.

All seven paintings are on Formica. This is more evident in some of them than others—above all in Distortion for Link Wray, 2007, and Cartoon, 2007, where Crosby has wiped away the paint around the edges of the rectangle so that the shiny white surface of the support becomes a pictorial element in its own right, a sort of reverse repoussoir. But more generally, the Formica, offering minimal friction, allows Crosby to move paint freely across the surface and to subtract it just as readily. The paint encounters resistance only where it meets and moves through other paint, so that the more heavily built-up the surface becomes, the less distinguishable it might be from wet-on-wet painting on a more frictive support such as canvas. These different degrees of ease of movement versus drag are probably as important to the specificity of feeling each painting conveys as similarities and contrasts of color and degrees of luminosity—that is, quite important.

Abstract paintings at their best are hard to describe—the better, the harder, I’ve come to think. You can enumerate some of their salient elements, but the way those elements are concerted to convey a distinctive sense of things can only be indicated through metaphor. Mine would be that Crosby is trying to snag color in nets of other colors. As he pulls the nets tighter, rather than holding color faster in his nets, he tends to squeeze it out of his grasp, but when he loosens them, color starts to come in, as if of its own accord, and the room lights up.

Barry Schwabsky