New York

Rupert Deese, Kern River/10 (blue grey), 2008, oil on wood, 35 x 61".

Rupert Deese, Kern River/10 (blue grey), 2008, oil on wood, 35 x 61".

Rupert Deese

Rupert Deese, Kern River/10 (blue grey), 2008, oil on wood, 35 x 61".

Rupert Deese’s self-described “painted structures”—there were a dozen in this exhibition—could be regarded as versions of what Lawrence Alloway termed “systemic painting,” or, as it has sometimes been called, “pattern painting.” Yet the appearance of a pattern is only an illusion. To create each work, Deese made a mold based on the elevations represented in a topographical map. Then he arranged triangular tiles on top of the mold, building a structure whose surface approximates features of the landscape, its peaks and valleys. This faceted ground is painted a single, unmodulated color, yet as light and shadow play across the angled structure, the tiles appear to vary in tone, ranging from dark to nearly white. Across a painting, these differences create a sort of quivering effect, a gentle quirkiness artfully emerging from a strictly regular framework. Though cut off at the paintings’ edges, the triangular motif seems to continue beyond them, infinitely.

Although Deese’s paintings look like allover geometric abstractions, their titles give the meaning away. A tondo was titled Merced and Tuolumne, 1996, after a river in California’s Stanislaus National Forest. The other paintings on view here (all are rectangles, with the exception of one parallelogram) were titled after California’s Kern River Valley. Thus, Deese is a landscape painter, but with a difference. He is less interested in representing the “rocks, water, flora, and sky”—I am quoting him—than he is in finding an abstract correlative for their “shapes, colors, rhythms, and patterns.” Does one dark-brown painting refer to one of the three mountain ranges—the Greenhorn, Piute, and Scodie—that surround the valley? Do the “flowing” surfaces suggest Lake Isabella? Deese factors in the “time . . . gazing at a scene works . . . simultaneously complete and changing.” He succeeds: The patterns seem at once fixed and mutable, the wavering color conveying nature’s flux. Many of the paintings are oil on wood, meaning that the depicted environment—the forest—is their “foundation.”

The uneven surfaces convey a general impression of the terrain Deese was looking at, but they also suggest the roughness of the ground underfoot. He offers the sense of looking down from a height and simultaneously being very close to the surface; he wants us to walk the terrain with our eyes.

The paintings in this show are beautiful, by which I mean that, despite their eccentricity, they are harmonious. In the nineteenth century, American landscape painting began, with the rest of the country, to “go West,” finally reaching the golden state of California. Deese’s paintings suggest the alluring luster of that mythical destination, but depict it as a pristine abstraction—a sort of “sensational” idea.

Donald Kuspit