Ed Moses & Larry Poons: The Language of Paint
William Turner Gallery, Santa Monica
May 31 to July 19, 2014
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, JULY 2014
Much can be said about the physical properties of paint, if only to define its fundamental attributes as a medium. Variables like viscosity, malleability, chroma, permanence, transparency, opacity, and pigment are all integral to the science of painting, and inherent in the act of applying it to the canvas. The artist must learn the limitations of the medium and come to terms with, even conquer, the physical dynamics of paint in order to realize a vision. Both Ed Moses and Larry Poons have triumphed in mastering the medium and the material. To characterize the selected works in this exhibit as painterly doesn’t come close to conveying their profound essence. Although the two each have their own distinct and particular approach, style, and technique, they both embrace the pure physicality of paint.
One of the most striking features in Poons’ use of paint is a kind of magical alchemy. He ignores the limitations of his medium, endowing acrylic paint with the lush, sumptuous quality of oil. Oblique Reunion (2006, acrylic on canvas, 68 x 79 inches) is the combined gradual build-up from thinned washes applied in drips, to thick layers -- almost an impasto -- arriving at a rich, oily luster. If there were such a thing as Abstract Impressionism Poons would exemplify it in Forlorn Patrol (2013, acrylic on canvas, 66 3/8 x 104 inches). The composition is comprised of small flecks of pigment. Pink rose shapes pop out predominantly, with soft muted grays, teals and yellows, as if in a close-up detail of an Impressionist landscape -- except that the image does not represent anything literal. Calling You (2009, acrylic on canvas, 67 1/4 x 114 inches) is a profuse uttering of textured gestural brushstrokes of varied thickness and vivid color -- magenta, red, Pthalo blue green shades, yellow -- rippling with movement on a background of blue-green. Metallic highlights reach out for the light. While abstract, the composition seems to imply a wild garden. The work is absorbing, inviting the viewer to get lost in it, suggesting an unplugged contemporary version of Monet’s garden at Giverny. (The painting is on loan for the exhibition from musician/producer T. Bone Burnett, who understandably referred to it as his most treasured possession in a January Vanity Fair interview.)
In his earlier work, Poons used a quieter, nearly monochromatic palette. In Log Train (1985, acrylic on canvas, 78 1/4 x 90 inches) the artist poured thick layers of paint to create a built-up surface like a craggy cliff side. The painting is a rush of textured momentum, filled with energy. From a distance, the overall effect is a muted pinkish grey. Up close, slender veins of blue, violet, rose and umber are visible. In some of his more recent work, Poons has expanded on these threads of color, bringing them out of confinement from the previous thick mélange, allowing the colors to explode in their own individual statement. His process is unique and extraordinary, without finite parameters or the notion of a conventionally defined compositional space. Poons frequently paints on huge sheets of canvas hung on the walls of his studio. He determines the borders of his compositions later. The paintings are cut and stretched accordingly, resulting in dimensions that are somewhat irregular.
In contrast to Poons, Moses seems to be more concerned with line, even in the earlier pieces, like Pre-Aix, (1999, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches). This is one of the more subtle works by Moses shown here, with built-up washes in a limited palette predominated by black and white with diffuse red and green details. The contrasting repeated gradations of dark and light combine to create a rippling effect. The painting appears to have little correlation to the artist’s later work, POOHJ+W (2004, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 60 inches) with its loose flat monochromatic gestural lines, which loop and intersect in a flurry of movement. As if conjoined, Dappel & Edward # 2 (2008, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 120 inches) are two stunning iterations of a similar concept mounted side-by-side. Dappel is a dark flowing vertical composition of black, green and ultramarine with violet and iridescence rippling through. Edward # 2 has the same liquid vertical configuration in a lighter palette, with horizontal wavy bands echoing the earlier Aix compositions.
On the facing wall of the gallery is a painting from the exquisite crackle series as exhibited in the artist’s show last year. La Fleur (2013, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 96 inches) is a gorgeous articulation of repeated abstracted flower shapes defined in a richly textured surface of black on white. It seems the life’s work of Ed Moses is a continual exploration, in which he refuses to be detained by any one form of expression or idea for very long, regardless of how compelling or rewarding any single direction may be. There’s always something new. In Cubist No-Y, (2014, acrylic on canvas, 66 X 54 inches) one of two works from more recent series, Moses expounds on yet another direction. Red and black diagonal lines crisscross the canvas, in a wet-on-wet technique.
The juxtaposition of Moses and Poons is a propitious meeting of east and west coasts in a visual tale of two cities, representing two distinct sensibilities, two different qualities of light, two opposed process narratives, and two vastly different sets of day-to-day influences. Regardless, the outcome of combining the work of these two painters side-by-side is a dynamic and magnetically charged synergy. Apparently, the process of curating the works for this exhibit was a collaborative and prolonged endeavor. In the end, what was selected may not be a comprehensive survey of either artist’s oeuvre, but gives a nuanced look at the avenues of exploration each artist has taken in the course of their 50+ year careers. It is fitting this survey is entitled The Language of Paint given the range of concepts represented, and the fluency with which these two painters speak that language, the exhibition is an homage to the medium itself. It represents two fully realized approaches to how paint can be manipulated, coddled and teased to transcend and transform the constraints of a mere substance.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
view all articles from this author