Vespers and Auroras
September 9 - October 4, 2020
David Richard Gallery
By MARK BLOCH, October 2018
A kindred group of five large pieces carry the purest hues, the last one more muted toward the bottom and with some of the most obvious brush strokes in the room, not really that obvious. Two Tonal Paintings, numbers 6 and 8, with blue at the top and yellow at the bottom, are similar to each other though Tonal Painting 8 distinguishes itself with slightly blotchy areas and orange and yellow speckles scattered in a wider transition zone. Vespers II is mostly strange gray tones, some the color of dirt, with a remotely pleasant shade at the bottom reminiscent of Comet Cleanser. My favorite piece, Aurora II, is an odd spectrum with every color in the rainbow tinted unmistakably brown with the rich purplish tone at the top more cozy and seductive than the rest, chocolatey and warm.
Some of these paintings feature narrower or wider gradation sectors between colors. Some have an infrequent brush hair interrupting its otherwise pristine surface or some zig zag underpainting that unexpectedly catches the light. Tonal Painting 29’s top half is mysteriously pock marked. Aurora IV’s chroma is noticeably ashen. Aurora I is rose-colored and peachy with a thick fleshy lower strip that looked so much like unnatural foundation makeup that it made me think of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, until I recalled that it was a black and white movie.
With the same ease that Isaac Aden’s new paintings transition from yellows to blues while straddling muted greens, his interests and references fade seamlessly from landscape painting to Color Field to Minimalism, from optical art to Conceptualism. What he has created at David Richard Gallery is a pallet of influences drawn from 400 years of art making.
Just like Aden’s contemporary Sophie Mattise (born 1965), who literally counts as her great-grandfather not just Henri Mattise but also, through marriage, a step-grandfather in Marcel Duchamp, Aden, perhaps the spiritual godson of Josef Albers and Caspar David Friedrich, as well as Duchamp, has plucked subtle hues and gradations out of landscape painting and the New York School and deposited them into a scholarly metaphorical breakout room to be examined anew, appreciated both intellectually and with the senses, though not in that order.
Sophie Matisse gained renown for her Missing Person series of paintings, in which she appropriated and erased from, iconic works from art history. In her 1997 piece Monna Lisa (Be Back in Five Minutes) she replicated the background setting of Leonardo's original, vanishing the eponymous subject from the scene. Next she removed the figures from Grant Wood's American Gothic and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, leaving only landscapes in their absence.
Aden has done the opposite. Rather than leaving behind the landscape from a particular painting, he seems to have surgically removed and sterilized it, creating a roomful of undulating rectangles with seductive color changes, as clean as the skies in one of Ed Ruscha’s Southern California post-Pop landscapes, presenting a new, pure visual language that surely required care, nuance and precision to create and now, advisedly, to view.
Speaking of California, Albert Bierstadt was a 19th Century German-American Hudson River School style painter known for large romantic, carefully detailed but effulgent vistas depicting the American West. Aden’s multi-tiered visual vernacular links Bierstadt and Aden’s own work to Color Field painting in New York during the 1940s and 1950s, a style that itself was inspired by European Modernism. Because of a concordance of pertinence manifesting as form and process, color was freed to be the subject of art itself.
Aden inspires us to reverse-engineer the history of art so that it incrementally moves toward the ideas in his latest work. Recent artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres with playful flecks of color that suggest a pointillism of objects or Wolfgang Tillmans, whose work focuses on formal aesthetic qualities freed from the burden of content, point backward to Color Field or Minimalist monochromes. They themselves can be seen as having taken the reigns from landscape painters stretching from Seurat all the way back to Claude Lorrain, the French painter of the Baroque era and Dutch Golden Age painting, who drew from history to create Bible scenes or narratives from or classical mythology, extolling the glories of the landscape. Proceeding from Aden’s work astern, one might see art history as rare rhythmic bursts of pure color that poke through the clouds of representation a couple of times each century, much like isolated freeze frames that lodge in our consciousness at those exact moments when the sun erupts in the creation of a new morning or delicately disappears below the horizon at day’s end.
By calling this show Vespers and Auroras, Aden points his optical experiments toward Romanticism, perhaps even a rebirth of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement of the early 1800s in the eastern US of Emerson and Thoreau but that also transmits Kantian ideas of the divine as manifested in the sublime. Transcendentalism saw the inherent goodness of all nature and all humanity. In the related art movement of Luminism, brushstrokes were preferred most to be concealed so that the painter's personality might be minimized, an idea that fully came to fruition a century or more later in the work and influence of John Cage who has ironically become quite famous for subjugating the ego and evidence of the maker’s hand from art. Contrary to Impressionism which emphasized brush marks, Aden’s work was created with aerosolized spray on top of wet, brushed gray layers. But like Impressionist color relationships, “the fascinations with light also lead to drab and blurred pictures informed by the knowledge that the realism of color is rooted in grey,” as Aden explained. “Grey is the tonal value of color that more frequently exists in the natural world.”
As the people and historical elements in landscape painting shrunk and eventually faded out in relation to some skyscapes, Aden cites Claude’s considerable influence on artists of the 18th century as well as masters like J. M. W. Turner in the 19th century. Aden also cites Caspar David Friedrich, the important 19th-century German Romanticist whose giant vistas feature tiny ruminative figures demarcated against large hazy morning or evening airspace as an interest. Later, one of the leading members of the Hudson River School, Sanford Robinson Gifford, executed grand landscapes known for their tranquility and calm. This practitioner of the aforementioned Luminism emphasized the effects of light on reflective bodies of water and cool, hard, non-diffuse skies. Aden even cites James Abbott McNeill Whistler as an influence, perhaps because of his stance against sentimentality and allusion in painting, preferring instead "arrangements", and “nocturnes,”and striving for “tonal harmony” that echoes his own.
The natural light shows in the sky called auroras occur near the North or South Pole when solar winds blow causing solar particles—electrons and protons—and gases to interact, causing green and purple patterns in the sky. Meanwhile, Aden is interested in how far away objects on land look different from close ones because of the way color diffuses over distance because of the way the cones and rods in the human eye process light.
These are neither Duchamp’s or Albers’ optical obsessions but they are closer to them than to the formalist approach invoked by Minimalism, which these works bring to mind after a cursory viewing. The exhibition by this Lincoln, Nebraska-born artist includes 16 abstract paintings: four large horizontals at 5 x 8 feet, and three rotated verticals the same size. The other nine works, measuring 5 x 4 feet were completed slightly earlier. Aden began this entire series in January of this year, just before Covid struck, based on a period of research that he did here and during a residency in China during which he solved the problems brought forth by his initial conceptions of this body of work.
These sixteen final pieces and some 30 earlier examples on canvas he did to manifest his ideas were not an overnight development. The “tonal paintings” began at least 4 years ago not as oils but in the velvety wrinkle-proof Color Aid paper used by illustrators, architects and designers and embraced by Albers in 1948. “Can I scale it up?” Aden wondered and began to experiment with sprays. He liked the way the paint traveled through the air to stick on paper but like pastels or even oxidized rust on earlier works of his, it was fragile and flaked off of canvas. Adhering with varnish refracted light in ways he found unsuitable. Finally, he discovered that spraying directly onto wet pre-prepared backgrounds worked but it required pushing his body to its limitations, gesturally twisting and turning to blanket an inconsistently layered surface within the allotted drying time.
The artist, who was born in 1979, created these as plein air works as he sees them, created outdoors during the summer months, akin to Monet expressing his perceptions from within nature, in particular those completed in his garden at Giverny over the last thirty years of his life. Spray painting oils into the brushed-on grey, Aden used only red, yellow and blue, distributing each separately over the entire picture plane, mixing on the canvas, sometimes while elevated on a ladder. Coaxing the smooth oil layers varying in degrees of thickness and thinness over the slightly textured grey ground extremely quickly required him to execute a final coat in as little as 15 minutes. Chance elements took over including pigment that was not necessarily uniformly applied due to gusts of wind that caused paint to swirl, move or build up. Drying times varied due to temperature. Aden, who has studied meteorology as well as optical effects, embraced these aleatory results.
The other word in the show’s title, a vesper, means a sunset evening prayer service, one of the most ancient remnants the Catholic Church, dating back to fourth century Rome and later adapted for use in sacred liturgies by Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran worshippers. Vesper hymns then attracted the interest of composers from Monteverdi to Mozart, from Vivaldi to Bruckner to Rachmaninoff. Throughout centuries of romantic adaptations, vespers became synonymous with Venus, the evening star.
Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are often mistaken for his tragic later work because they are some of the first paintings in which he experimented with somber shades. But his “dark palette” of blacks, blues, purples, and reds, actually appeared earlier, spanning 1955 through the 1960s. They were never handed over to the Four Seasons restaurant for which they were commissioned because the artist decided that his complex burgundies and brushstrokes that yielded “the color of an inferno” were not what well-heeled customers would want to see while dining.
Aden, who talked about Rothko and all of the artists mentioned above (except one) as his conceptual or formal forebearers, added, “the desire to paint elusive moments and the effects of light and atmosphere lead away from rational color of the empirical in favor of a spectrum of impasto dabs and mixing on the surface to create a more natural picture.” He has achieved the desired color mingling to showcase what Kant once declared when he said, “The night is sublime and the day is beautiful.” This endeavor was indeed a layered affair, literally and metaphorically.
The one artist Aden did not not mention as an influence was Sophie Matisse. She came to mind because I always saw hers as a playful plucking action, cleverly pulling the subjects of paintings from their positions in the foregrounds of art historical works, much the way Isaac Aden has plucked out the essentials of the backgrounds and re-deposited them for our approval... in The Twilight Zone. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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