GORDON MOOREby Joan Waltemath
BETTY CUNINGHAM | DECEMBER 8, 2011 – FEBRUARY 11, 2012
“To think does not mean merely to be affected by this or that thing, by this or that content of enacted thought, but rather at once to be affected by one’s own receptiveness and experience in each and every thing that is thought a pure power of thinking.”
—Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End
Gordon Moore’s exhibition of photo-emulsion drawings and paintings at Betty Cuningham Gallery in Chelsea is composed of somber hues, much gray, and fields of white. Mid-sized and small oil, pumice, and latex works on canvas hang seamlessly together with framed ink on photo emulsion paper drawings in the front room, while large paintings essentially fill up the back space. The exhibition feels in tune with the present moment where uncertainty and restraint fill the lives of most Americans.
“Untitled” (2011) sets up a dual/doubling or echoing phenomenon that goes on in most of the works in some form or another. Here the canvas is divided in half; one side is medium gray, the other white latex. Each side has a form of sorts whose shape is neither memorable nor evocative, but which sets itself in a particular dialogue with the other marks, gestures, and patches of paint in the opposing field. Bands of blue and white provide a focal point; hard edged and chevron patterned, they set up a counterpoint to the apparent casualness of most other incidents in the spare field. Moore doesn’t draw a line, he locates it spatially through shadow, perspective, or planar orientation; the process yields a generous sense of space.
As the paintings start to unfold, the manifold nature of these incidental surface occurrences assert their not so casual complexities. The shadow of a line echoes the fold of a form, a deliberate curve in the white field rotates, changing its orientation when a connection to a similar, but this time swift and painterly gesture, is drawn by the eye crossing from left to right, over not quite half of the painting.
Smaller shapes on the left set up a hierarchy in relation to the lines on the right. A narrowing green parallelogram on the right side is defined as inverted when it registers as an analogue to the opposite movement in a similar form on the left.
These things that we see—a brushstroke, a labored line, the chevron pattern, a smudged gray expanse, a green which has been rubbed out and off—seem to mean nothing in and of themselves; they gain significance when their relationship to other incidents occurring on the same plane becomes apparent.
In “Stone” (1)(2011) the dynamic meeting of the two major figural elements in the painting creates an instantaneous focal point and sense of importance. The modulation of gray within a single brushstroke opens up an intense depth at the point of contact, but only in the right hand shape; the left has its nuance differently dispersed. In the lower left hand corner, a shape drawn through with Moore’s characteristic spindly and awkward line provides a moment of reflection, cutting a deep current in what looks at a distance like a loss of light. Up close the effort of its near perfect modulation meets the trained eye.
Moore’s bringing together of diverse texture, surface reflectivity, paint handling, and compositional moves sets up a formal structure for metaphoric interpretation delimited by the perceiver’s receptivity.
Some of the photo-emulsion drawings dispersed throughout the exhibition have a nostalgic feel, like ’50s West Coast Modernism in high-end design or architectural photographs, which recall a more optimistic era in our collective national memory. Others don’t, despite the dated materials, which would have been contemporary with Moore’s childhood. They serve to contextualize the paintings and clarify his position.
Moore’s use of shadows and subtle modulations of gray to white plays on the assumption that what is painted is all very real. A line is an arm of a found umbrella is a line and back again. The translation into the concrete reality of his painterly vocabulary throws the painted space up as if it were a common ground. This may be Moore’s most radical assumption, that there is indeed a form of life to which we all still accede. His ability to articulate the desire for this to be true mirrors painting’s search for communicability within its own formal language. His oeuvre chronicles a struggle to find a way beyond the limits Greenberg set for abstraction.
It doesn’t take much effort to take on Moore’s assumption, but what’s he talking about? Do the forms here follow patterns of thoughts, habits of mind that allow for self-reflection? Do they serve to trace the vicissitudes of emotional encounters where everything rides on a word or a gesture, where a singular moment is contextualized within the richness of our daily life when consciousness is not dulled by substance or panic, anxiety or dread? Do they tell us about the rarity of incidents we will remember, when the constellation of occurrences is specific enough to meet us halfway and therefore impress? The subjects lie just below the surface; as with metaphors they open a pathway to think about aspects of life and love, and the social, political, personal, and pedestrian facts of life.
The falling paint on many surfaces creates pathos, an awareness of what is momentary, of what can be caught only once; the painting’s structure gives us what is lasting, what is stable, what holds us together. These doublings rest with the awareness that anything can be realigned, but held only for a time before the movement begins to turn into its opposite. The recognition of our limited effect and control is grounding; there are no flights of fancy where the paintings take off.
Moore never ventures very far in terms of color, his shifts being mostly slight. There are vast expanses in the big paintings where the paint just does what it does and we see in it what we will. Escape/reflection is brief but available everywhere to construct parallels to whatever appears in the mind and assert itself, challenging perception by showing its multivalent and mercurial aspects. Idiosyncratic and arbitrary in the best sense of the words, the results of Moore’s singular will build on the past as they cut a new edge.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.