Grid 1 Mil, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48"
by David M. Roth
Ed Moses is one of the few living artists whose mere mention quickens the pulse. Having reinvented himself continuously over the better part of six decades, he remains, at age 90, startlingly relevant. The depth of that relevancy was made clear earlier this year in a career retrospective at the William Turner Gallery that spilled over into the space of the now-defunct Santa Monica Museum. It revealed, at length, the artist’s many process innovations and his far-reaching influence on abstract painting, keeping it fresh when it was for so long under fire. Few gallery shows scale those heights, and this one – named LA–SAN FRANCISCO, presumably for having followed closely on the heels of the Turner show — makes no attempt to do so. What it does, mainly, is bring to the fore a resurgent motif: the grid, an idea Moses first explored in the mid-1970s, and has reprised, at various intervals, ever since.
This, and other Moses inventions, have stood the test of time; meaning, they tug at the senses in ways that are unique to Moses and no one else. This small, generously hung, show contains several such examples. Grid 1 Mil stands out by inducing vertigo with diagonal red and black stripes layered onto a white ground. The tartan pattern, reminiscent of Moses’ NY-Trac series,
brings to mind deep canyons and impossibly tall buildings seen from a bird’s eye perspective. To look is to feel as if you’re standing at the edge of a precipice. Moses activates that sensation with lines of different widths, opacities and textures. They overlay and intersect each other, producing squares and rectangles of varying dimensions, those being the spaces you "fall" into if you succumb to the illusion set forth. Heed the instinct to resist and other things happen. Positive and negative spaces start to switch places, and the intensity of the pull increases, which is something that doesn’t happen when you look at, say, Ellsworth Kelly, a painter whose geometric works have been likened to this part of Moses’ oeuvre. Moses, to my mind, is the unheralded King of Op.
Over the years, he’s performed many such tricks. Several years ago in this gallery he mounted a show (wic-wack) of quasi-representational works from 2009 that had the texture of synthetic fabric, a mesh of tightly woven layers onto which talking heads and animals were superimposed or interposed – I couldn't tell which. They were among the few Moses paintings to carry recognizable imagery, and they gave no clue as to their method of manufacture. Here, no such conundrums are in play; brushstrokes, drips, stains, snap lines, squeegee pulls and spray gun blasts are plain to see. Moses, always a painter’s painter, toggles
between them and the result is paintings that feel like conjuring acts. Coral Grid #1, the strongest example, is a grid only insofar as the lines meet at 90-degree angles. Bleeding into the ground and each other, they form a big, waterlogged black-and-red stain, crisscrossed by bloated, wavy forms that seamlessly coalesce, challenging the eye, if not the very notion of the grid itself.
The other motif recycled in this show is a squiggly mark resembling a snail trail or animal entrails. (Similar forms showed up in Moses’ work in the late 1980s and 1990s, but at a much larger scale.) Here, in Whtout, a painting measuring 55 x 39 inches, they mix with crosses and are set into a frame made of wood slats, also covered in crosses. Moses maintains that any content perceived in his work is unintended, and that if it exists it originates solely in the mind of the viewer. So I'll resist speculating about what he might have been thinking when he made the painting. My thoughts – triggered by a barren white ground covered in a grid of green cacti/crosses – went to the hundreds who die each year crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Moses' meandering hand- and spray-painted lines tracing their fateful last steps, and the simple frame a reference to pinewood coffins.
Moses has always described his method as a combination of knowingness and chance, and himself as “The Great Mutator.” LA–SAN FRANCISCO shows the two working in harmony, and the artist’s mutational powers undiminished by time or market forces.
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