Frank Ammerlaan, untitled, 2012, various chemicals on canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 1/2".

Frank Ammerlaan, untitled, 2012, various chemicals on canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 1/2".

Frank Ammerlaan

Frank Ammerlaan, untitled, 2012, various chemicals on canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 1/2".

There’s something unsettling about the beauty of Frank Ammerlaan’s paintings. Their surfaces look almost like pools of oil suspended on water: Hallucinatory rainbow colors form voluptuous clouds that are delicate, all-encompassing, sublime. Yet their obvious dependence on chance raises the question of what their beauty means. To make the works in his recent untitled series (all 2012), for example, Ammerlaan, who graduated from London’s Royal College of Art last year, first blackens his canvases with acrylic paint, then deposits them in a bath of water with an undisclosed mixture of chemicals, from which they emerge with his signature, stunning iridescent color effects. Is the aesthetic appeal of Ammerlaan’s work simply that of a rainbow or lightning bolt, or has the artist successfully co-opted the forces of nature to create meaning?

This tension was the prevailing theme in Ammerlaan’s exhibition “Day’s End,” named after Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1975 video of changing levels of sunlight in a deserted building on the Hudson River at sunset. Like Matta-Clark, Ammerlaan explores elusive phenomena such as light and perception and enjoys testing the limits of his control over them. For example, one of his black canvases at first appears almost monochromatic. But look long enough under the right light, and just under the dark surface you will discover two intense clouds of color that imbue the piece with a remarkable depth. Ammerlaan thematizes the tension between the legibility won by focused attention and the impenetrable chaos of chance effects in a number of canvases in which he lays nearly monochromatic color clouds over very fine lines in sparse, minimalist forms. Close examination reveals that the lines are not painted but embroidered on the canvas—a very exacting procedure that is itself a potent allusion to control and precision.

By emphasizing the contrast between his uncontrolled color clouds and the rigid geometry of his subtle gossamer threads, Ammerlaan seeks nothing less than the point of contact between nature and culture. Perhaps it’s through number that they meet. Several small minimalist metal sculptures, for example, are so formally compelling that their structures seem almost self-evident, calling to mind not only mathematical principles but also biorhythmic structures. To realize that they could just as easily be the products of Ammerlaan’s own imagination takes some effort. In “Day’s End,” Ammerlaan presented himself as an artist who is prepared to test his own sensibility against the chaotic, if also objective, processes and systems of the natural world. He is like an alchemist deliberately venturing into the realms of the sublime, where nature and culture collide and the artist’s ego can be all too easily shattered. One can only be eager for more from an artist willing to take on such a formidable challenge.

Hans den Hartog Jager

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.