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Ed Moses @ Brian Gross

Black Over Bronze, 2012, 72 x 60" and By By Blk Byrd, 2012, 84 x 162", both mixed media on canvas

 

At 85, Ed Moses continues to be one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in contemporary art.  His paintings hide nothing, but his techniques often mask as much as they reveal.  That is because for most of his 60-year career, the artist has relied almost exclusively on process and accidents: experiments with materials and self-invented tools that remain closely guarded secrets. 

His relationship to the art world and to art history is similarly complicated.  Over the years, he’s had significant encounters with Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Art Brut, Cubism and Constructivism; yet none have ever contained or even remotely described what he does.  Most notably, during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when his career began to hit full stride, he sidestepped formalist arguments about flatness and space by creating richly textured grid paintings that delivered both. Then, from the late-80s to around 2008, he tacked in the opposite direction, making exuberant biomorphic abstractions that rank as exemplars of their type.  Throughout, he injected a defiant vitality into painting at time when naysayers were declaring it over.  By substituting relentless material invention for a signature style, Moses achieved that most sought-after goal: he became sui generis.  Few living California painters are as revered. 
 
Red Over Black and White, 2013,  90 x 60"

This show of ten mostly large-scale works finds Moses in top form, reinvigorating past motifs with fresh methods.  The latest is a craquelure achieved by mixing acrylic paint with some unnamed substance that, when manipulated, “carves” spidery skeins into the grounds of his monochromatic canvases.  At a distance (or in reproduction) the surfaces look like something Alberto Burri might have created in the early ‘50s when he lived in LA and was sunbaking mud on raw canvas.  Moses’ patterns are more variegated; they crack into vivid shards, webs and floral patterns, the latter recalling shapes seen in the stenciled works he exhibited here in 2010.   Moses, ever the visual trickster, loves to confuse the eye.  Here, the surfaces appear to have been chiseled or imprinted as if with a wood block; at some points the paint actually peels. Prolonged viewing, however, suggests that shrinkage is the real cause.  Whatever the case, the process is neither random nor fully controlled, but more like a carefully calibrated randomness if such a thing can be said to exist.

The story is that the artist fell into one of his canvases and struck it with his elbow, at which point he realized he could direct the cracking by judiciously applying force. The result, a kind of gothic/seriocomic Minimalism, harks back to two earlier periods: Moses’ monochromatic (so-called cubist) canvases of the mid-‘70s and to his multi-panel paintings of early ‘80s.  Two on view here, both large triptychs, have the look and feel of altarpieces, incised with high-energy markings.  Graphically arresting, they fully command the gallery’s newly expanded space; yet I found myself gazing longer and harder at several grid-based works, which receive the crackle treatment, but to very different effect.  They appear, because of the structure, more ordered than organic.  Again, close inspection reveals that they are both.  While lacking the dizzying optical properties of the artist’s earlier grid paintings from the ‘70s and ‘80s, which evoked aerial views of urban canyons, these issue a fresh set of perceptual challenges.  Red Over Black and White, to take the strongest example, features a diagonal grid composed of interleaved squares.  Half contain

Green Over Black, 2012, 36 x 30"

red-on-black roseate patterns; the rest are built of jagged forms, black-on-white.  The dueling patterns and colors, combined with the painting’s refractive and reflective properties, induce a visual pas de deux in which foreground and background continuously shift places.

This persistent negotiation between chaos and stasis sums up the way Moses, a devotee of Buddhism since 1960, has always operated. When asked by the critic Barbara Rose why his career appears episodic rather than linear he said: “I’m not really changing.  I’m mutating…Everything I do comes from something previous…I go back and forth and sideways.”  Thus, if you feel yourself maneuvering like a skittering crab to get a fix on Moses, there’s a reason.  He remains, after six decades, a moving target, in dialog as much with art history as with his own prodigious output.   
 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Ed Moses: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through October 26, 2013.
 

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