Robert Bordo Back Flip
The National Exemplar | April 30 – June 3, 2017
The National Exemplar has a distinct program that focuses on artists of different generations, as well as on bodies of work that may have been overlooked relative to an artists’ better-known works. For example, a Keith Sonnier exhibition slated for November 2017 will present wooden totems made in Japan during the 1980s, never before exhibited in New York. Currently, the curator of Back Flip, Katie Rashid, has chosen seven paintings by Robert Bordo—dating from 1988 to 2017—that both establish a context for recent work, and show a consistent evolution of Bordo’s paintings. To accompany the show, the gallery’s director Eneas Capalbo produced a printed announcement displaying a group of personal photos by Bordo of his travels over the years—images that often seem to draw direct relationships with his paintings.
The works here tell a story—a narrative that reflects Bordo’s life, interests, work process, and the history of that process—though the installation nicely sidesteps a feeling of retrospect as chronology is averted, and equality between works is strengthened. Untitled (1988), comprising a gridded area of blue traversed by lines and dashes, loosely renders a detail from a map with what appear to be available routes. On either side of the blue area are outcrops of land in ochre. The tone of the painting is optimistic and bright, either searching or recalling, as in journeys made or journeys anticipated. With paint applied in a sensuous way, its horizontal and vertical lines—brushed freely across the surface—anticipates formal aspects that reoccur frequently in later paintings.
Back Flip (2013) depicts a view up a sloped terrain, to the top of a roadside embankment or a pile of dirt, where the back of a road sign is visible (we can presume having driven past just moments before). The painting is economical; the earth, vegetation, and sign are depicted in an unfussy way, with obvious pleasure in each brushstroke. The simple palette of brown and green—the sky is also the same color as the vegetation—is direct pictorially, and succinct. As much as this is satisfying, a dark emotional tone invades the painting—perhaps it is longing, a desire to return, or a stray thought, like fleeting regret. Like other more recent paintings, this work tends away from lyricism without dispensing entirely of visual and tactile pleasure.
Creek (2008) and Wacko (2012) both evince a physical quality of thickly applied and manipulated paint with a reduced illumination, together with resonant, rather than bright, color. Again, they are not joyful so much as sensuous and ambivalent paintings. The space created is complex with overlaps, splits, and changes of scale in both shape and mark.
The three paintings from this year—all smaller in size and similar in configuration—take a different direction. They recall Barnet Newman’s centralized “zip” in Onement 1 (1949). One of them, Snowed (2017), is as its title implies a predominantly white and pale gray painting. Within its centered vertical band of darker grey—seemingly revealed by scraping away the paler layers on top—is an orange mark, a quick dab or swipe of paint. The reference could be a tree marked for felling.
The environment and man’s place in it, ecology and its shared future, travel and our experience of passing through landscapes, reverberate throughout Bordo’s paintings. The way ahead may be ominous—climate change and political polarity are but two examples—though pleasure and sensuality are not to be discounted, and paintings like these are certainly a place that this can be found.