New York

Juan Uslé, Soñé que revelabas (Hudson Blue) (I Dreamed That You Revealed [Hudson Blue]), 2021, vinyl, dispersion paint, and dry pigment on canvas, 120 × 89 3⁄4". From the series “Soñé qu revelabas,” 1997–.

Juan Uslé, Soñé que revelabas (Hudson Blue) (I Dreamed That You Revealed [Hudson Blue]), 2021, vinyl, dispersion paint, and dry pigment on canvas, 120 × 89 3⁄4". From the series “Soñé qu revelabas,” 1997–.

Juan Uslé

“When we estimate nature as being dynamically sublime,” Immanuel Kant once wrote, “our idea of it must be fearful. . . . Bold, overhanging rocks which seem to threaten us, storm clouds piled up in heaven . . . a high waterfall in a mighty river . . . reduce our power of resistance to impotence as compared with their might.”

Juan Uslé’s quartet of abstract, vertically oriented canvases in “Horizontal Light,” his solo exhibition at Galerie Lelong, felt as imposing as Kant’s great waterfalls. Three of them were ten feet high and roughly seven-and-a-half feet wide, while the fourth was similar in width but slightly smaller, at roughly nine feet tall. The works were all titled Soñé que revelabas (I Dreamed That You Revealed), and each was subtitled with the name of a river: Hudson Blue, Loire, and Ohio, all 2021, and Guadalquivir, 2020–21. To my mind, they are the epitomizing climax of the ambitious attempt to conjure the sublime that began with Wassily Kandinsky. The sixty-six-year-old Uslé uses what the Russian artist called the “keyboard” of colors to wondrous effect—his reds and blues across this particular grouping seem as though they’ve been shadowed by darkened skies and disturbed spirits, while his blacks are resolutely chthonic, Cimmerian. The fourteen smaller paintings and drawings in Uslé’s show, all more or less two feet high and eighteen inches wide, seemed to me to be rather condensed versions of the monolithic images: intimately scaled icons meant for private edification. This idea may seem far-fetched, but the tinier pieces are the ambiguously abstract equivalent, both in size and in purpose, of Juan Sánchez Cotán’s hyperrealistic still lifes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Both Spanish painters are mystics “looking for silence,” as Uslé said in 2011 about his ongoing “Soñé que revelabas” series, begun in 1997. Uslé has also stated that making a picture is like “reciting a prayer” or performing a religious “ritual,” suggesting the painter is a priest, even a saint.

But where Cotán highlighted the quiet dignity of his objects, as though they were offerings on an altar, Uslé finds serenity in the rhythmic movement of flowing water. Similar to Kandinsky’s work, Uslé’s painting is musical. Where Kandinsky emphasized sound in his pieces, however, Uslé accentuates the silences, as the flat-black bands that abruptly appear throughout fields of pulsing color imply. These formal interruptions are suggestive of the poem “Dark Night of the Soul” (ca. 1577–79), by Saint John of the Cross, another Spanish mystic. Uslé said that he has “always been attracted to the night,” which makes me believe that he located the depths of his own being within the darkness of evening.

Uslé meditates on water, and the moving river is emblematic of the living spirit of nature. Some of the early “Soñé que revelabas” paintings are completely black, as though he were looking through a glass darkly, perhaps with the hope of having a sacred revelation. Quoting art historian George Kubler’s remark that “actuality . . . is the void between events,” Uslé implies that his art is deeply attuned to the temporal. The sensuous streaks of color are timely events, while the black bands are spiritual voids, often infiltrating and finally obliterating the brilliant hues.

More pointedly, Heraclitus said, “All is flux, nothing stays still.” Much later, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the artistic process “creative flux.” In terms of this understanding, Uslé’s works are process paintings, conveying some aspect of nature’s enigmatic momentum even as they valorize the fluidity of man-made paint. His connection to the ebbs and flows of our untamed world—transparent in the élan vital of water, one of the four primordial elements essential to existence—reflects Uslé’s lived experience of the sublime.