New York

View of “James Nares,” 2019. Photo: Christopher Stach.

View of “James Nares,” 2019. Photo: Christopher Stach.

James Nares

James Nares’s eight ingenious and materially intriguing paintings at Kasmin Gallery—made from twenty-two-karat gold leaf applied to a ground of black Evolon, a microfilament textile—created a richly existential space with the most elemental of contrasts: light and dark, symbolizing life and death. The surfaces of his abstractions—stippled or covered with striations that vaguely resemble the hides of cheetahs, tigers, and other exotic cats—are resolutely flat, in the grand modernist tradition. Yet they are profoundly expressive, rich with personal and social meaning, as evidenced by the pictures’ titles, such as Greenwich I, 2018; Lafayette VI and Lafayette VII, both 2019; Laight I, 2018; and Wooster, 2019—which cite streets in Lower Manhattan, where the artist has lived for decades. He has strolled these sidewalks, some of which are centuries old, again and again. They possess an extraordinary presence for him (the exhibition was called “Monuments,” after all), as emblems of the workers who made them so many years ago. 

Nares started these paintings by making wax rubbings of those sidewalks, large slabs of granite inscribed with sundry designs—aesthetically sophisticated patterns born out of practical necessity—to keep passersby from slipping on them. The stones were cut into by “unknown souls whose touch still lingers,” according to Nares. He identifies with these laborers and suggests that they, too, were artists—modern artists, no less, by reason of their spontaneity, gesturalism, improvisation. Dare one say creative freedom? Yet Nares seems to be hoping, however unconsciously, that his mark-making, his creative carvings, will exist as long as theirs. The question ostensibly haunting Nares, then, is whether his paintings will also withstand the ages and immortalize him as he immortalizes the workers. I imagine they will. For one thing, gold, physically and metaphysically, is as durable as granite—the stuff of gods, kings, immortality. And what about the life span of Evolon? If it’s anything close to that of canvas, the material could stay strong for hundreds of years (and it appears to be a very high-tech fabric, so it’ll likely outlast us all). But people stroll the old sidewalks knowing little or nothing about who created them. Could the same indifference befall Nares’s pieces?

There is a lightly sentimental thread that runs through Nares’s subtly eloquent high art. The exhibition’s works are profoundly humanist, offering a welcome reprieve from modernist purity that goes against the critic Clement Greenberg’s rather contemptuous dismissal of the “all too human,” as he called it. Take Lafayette VII, 2019, a scintillating field of liquescent, serpentine forms that are as steadfastly and rigorously optical as they are unequivocally physical, sensual. They subliminally reintegrate unconscious feeling—a quality implicit in the explicitly material sidewalk. The process makes one think of Kandinsky when, in his dubious Solomonic wisdom, he dismissed Monet’s haystack—“the object,” as he said—due to its color. The notion speaks more to Kandinsky’s elitist spiritual concerns than to banal haystacks or, for that matter, everyday sidewalks. Kandinsky’s art is indifferent to time. But Nares’s works are memento mori that leave their traces on us.