Paula Cooper Gallery | January 7 – February 21, 2015
Dan Walsh’s exhibition at Paula Cooper’s 21st Street gallery presents a two-decade overview (1994 – 2014) that includes paintings, works on paper, mixed media pieces, and artist books. The focused arc of exploration comprises patterned fields of overlaid and repeated single gestures. Walsh’s gestures—short and straightforward movements of a loaded brush that apply either transparent or opaque paint at what looks like a constant speed—are neither expressionistic, nor without inflection. Their pace is like a steady serial beat that changes key and tempo to vary the structure—think of Steve Reich, for example. Here the gestures adjust a basic grid with changes of color and direction.
Walsh is preoccupied with time as a process. This is perhaps no better exemplified than in “Grid Book” (2008). The leaves of “Grid Book” and their turning stand in for the necessary participation of looking at the paintings and letting perception fold the past and future into a continuous present. The constant movement of a brush in short strokes, together with the spatial shifts of the composition—whilst actually static—are ordered perceptually in real time as we look at them.
Maintaining repetition in a process that is visually accessible, as in the 55 × 55-inch painting “Grotto” (2010), doesn’t mean that the ensuing structure is predictable. The three overlaid lattice structures of this painting consisting of single pulsing units of one vertical and one horizontal bar are syncretic: Binary relationships are absent in Walsh’s paintings. Rather than figure ground simplicity, there is a constant circuit of relationships in motion, activated by concentrated looking. There is something joyful in Walsh’s logic, ongoing and incremental rather than dialectic, and so not fixed on duality. This brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s seminal text “Difference and Repetition” (1968, translated into English, 1994), as well as the hypnotic effect of mandalas. In “Grotto” the alternating light and dark tones of pale gray-blue, warm brown, and pale yellow, push toward the painting’s edge differently than at its base. This orients the painting, giving it a definite grounding at this lower edge that allows for an architectonic reading: differentiating the lower edge, together with this edge being close to the floor, identifies the painting as in the same space as the viewer, and so therefore an embodied viewing.
This embodied and meditative looking allows a cohabitation of sensual experience and philosophical thought—any transcendence through meditative thinking is clearly physically based. The tactility of each overlapping gesture, together with the visual movement of the gestures across the field of the picture plane, creates the impression that the surface contains depth. This appears to be deliberately in opposition to creating illusions of a deeper recessive space. There is a symbolic exchange implied and it’s a participatory one: the viewer must use time to look before the visual effects of so much rhythmic multiplicity can be appreciated. The paintings are not examples or symbols of something else, evincing their roots in Minimalist art of the 1970s. Though they are not themselves Minimalist, it is impossible to imagine them without this tendency as a precedent.
“Untitled” (1994), a 60 × 60-inch black and white painting, evinces Walsh’s interest in symmetries and diagrammatic constructs, but here it stands in stark contrast to subsequent polychromatic paintings. The black lines are continuous, almost incised into the painting’s opaque painterly surface built from layers of uneven white brush strokes observable up-close. The painting recalls Al Held’s late work, though without the monumentality and more assertive physicality. It is instructive to see this painting with others—in the smaller room that faces onto 21st Street—that share similar characteristics, in the same exhibition as later works. The searching within set limits from one painting to the next reveals surprises and a desire, also within limits, to not recreate the same painting again and again, but to shift and reconfigure willingly.