Josée Bienvenu Gallery January 10 – February 23, 2008
A few weeks ago I took on a challenge to list ten good young abstract painters. It turned out to be more difficult than it sounded. I mulled the idea over for several days with little success. Later that week I went to to see Before and Aftermath, an exhibition of abstract paintings and drawings by Robert Jack. It didn’t fatten the list, but it did shed some light on the issue.
Robert Jack’s twelve paintings and five drawings introduce themselves right off the bat as breezy, diaphanous atmospheres that read like less muscular versions of Mark Rothko’s Multiforms. They slow down your visual metabolism when you’re in front of them and usher in a sense of serenity. Painted in casein, a milk-based paint binder, the surfaces are as flat as an Yves Klein monochrome. Any would-be extraneous effects—brush strokes, glossiness, texture—are swallowed up by the powdery plainness of their surfaces.
Unlike Rothko’s shoulder-painted meditations, Jack’s emulsified compositions emerge from a fastidiously executed field of tiny circles and dots. He builds atmospheres from the accumulation of discrete components, a departure from the brushy washes or scumbles of transparent color employed by formalist predecessors such as Rothko, Morris Louis, or Jules Olitski. Indeed, this work (as offered in the release) is conceived as a “symbiotic network where each element is linked to the next forming a tenuous chain … based on the circulatory systems of plants, [Jack’s work makes] visible a vital and basic aspect of life that is overlooked due to its scale. From photosynthesis in plants to the occult intentions of any information system, the world is governed by the imperceptible.”
Considering Jack’s stated motivations, it is important to see the paintings at a cellular level. However, it is hard to ignore their formal impact. Up close, paintings such as “For the Next Three Years” (2007) are activated by a figure-ground ambiguity that works a more muted version of Georges Seurat’s near/far magic. “Old Fellow’s Offering” (2007), a soft and misty painting comprised of thousands of cobalt and white specks, is equally deft at pulling the viewer in and out of itself, but is less enveloping than larger works with similar DNA, such as “Accompanied in the Night” (2007). To admire Jack’s work solely on these physical and experiential terms, however, is to miss his conceptual point. It would be like admiring the prose in the instructions of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. As it turns out, this point is precisely why I couldn’t think of ten abstract painters off the top of my head.
I had an interview a long time ago with an art school faculty adviser. I was young and ignorant, believing that the contemporary art world coincided with the final chapter of Jansson’s art history text. When the interviewer asked me which contemporary artists I looked to for inspiration, I said David Salle and Gerhard Richter, only because we each took a photograph and tried to exact it in paint. I had disregarded the conceptual conceit that guided both of these artists. It seems silly in hindsight, but this is the same problem facing contemporary abstract painting: how formalism and conceptualism coexist in a single practice.
Though Rothko’s and Jack’s work might be comparable superficially, their painterly impulses are quite different; Rothko was a true abstract painter, whose work had no need for a rational mission statement, while Jack and other like-minded artists end up at abstraction vis-à-vis a concept applied from the objective universe. Thus, it’s easy to name a list of competent abstract painters if you consider only the formal product, or if you assess them by conceptual relevance and then retrofit them back into abstraction. Without relying on either of these cheats, it’s actually hard to recite a laundry list of rising stars of the abstract kind. Robert Jack’s exhibition is sober and meditative, conceptually rigorous and formally eccentric, admirable in its craft and technique…but I was really hoping to add someone to that list. I’m sure Robert Jack is just fine with missing the cut.