by Mark Van Proyen
Prior to his passing in 2018 at the age of 91, Ed Moses was a mainstay of the southern California art world for six decades, best known for his series of diagonal grid paintings from the 1970s. Those works were notable for the way they captured the interplay of pastel color and refracted light, placing Moses in tangential synch with the ephemeralist Light and Space movement that was prominent in the southland during that time. As the years passed, Moses’ paintings continued to evolve, and by the time of his 1996 retrospective at LACMA, his work was moving in a different direction that finessed, blended and neutralized the conventional distinction between an Impressionist-derived idea of Beauty and a Symbolist-derived idea of the mythopoetic Sublime. This refocusing of direction can be partly attributed to Moses’s longstanding interest in traditional Asian painting, particularly Japanese Zenga painting that flourished during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.1
The eight paintings selected for the exhibition all hail from this latter part of Moses’ career, dating from 2001 to 2008. Despite his Biblical surname, Moses was an avowed and (sometimes) practicing Buddhist for most of his adult life, and this fact helps us come closer to understanding the aims of his work, as does his sincere belief in ghosts. The similarities that characterize this octet of paintings are obvious, even as their differences are subtle. All feature acrylic paint stained into or otherwise applied in layers of increased viscosity onto unprimed cotton canvas, only one of which is large. All of them, each in very different ways, explore the idea of the painterly gesture, at once referencing the Abstract Expressionist significance of the term while sharply deviating from it in at least four distinct ways. Paint application tools range from squirt bottles to squeegees, and in at least one case, also include the judicious addition of little flecks of glitter to a work’s surface. None of these paintings provide evidence of any conventional paintbrush contributing to their making.
Three of these works restrict themselves to the use of black paint. In the smallest and earliest work in the exhibition, BR’s Run #1 (2001), Moses uses layers of thick acrylic to articulate six interconnected shapes, each subtly different from the other in terms of size and clarity of edge. Insofar as paint application is concerned, the shapes seem to be the result of the use of a small squeegee, bringing to mind the Chinese concept of “bone method,” which roughly summarized means perfectly balanced brushstrokes that are neither too brittle nor too flaccid. BR’s Run also reminds us that Moses was a longtime friend of Sam Francis whose Blue Balls series echoes here in deep black rather than ultramarine blue. Another black work titled Who-Bart (2008) features a swirling labyrinth of spatialized gestures, while Rever-Sa #2 (2008) shows streams of diluted black paint to capture the undulating rhythms of flowing water or windblown grasslands.
Another trio of paintings brings color into the equation. Gold Bach (2002), the above-mentioned large work is configured similar to BR’s Run, but in multiple colors, including perfectly blended iridescent metallic pigments that give its surface a chromatic froth effect, accentuated a few tiny flecks of shiny glitter. Woggel #3 (2003) and Up-Out (2007) put the same layering of diverse materials to use. I confess to being perplexed by these three paintings. At first glance, they seemed just a little bit too chaotic. But after a time of adjustment, I was able to warm up to them, seeing them as implied landscapes taking partial, unresolved shapes.
Uno and Woh-Ine (both 2008) are unrelated to any of the others — or each other. They are the highlights of the exhibition. In some ways, Who-Ine harks back to Moses’ earlier work in that its orderly composition is based on repeated vertical bands of radiant color shimmering in an implied distance created in a purple-gray field. Uno is the pepper-upper of the exhibition, making use of the poured fluidity of fluorescent pinks and yellows to create a sequence of forms that fold in and out of a spatial recess, visible at the left side of the picture.
One interesting aspect of this exhibition lies in the comparisons that it tempts us to make between Moses’ late paintings and the still recent, short-lived deflorescence of works often grouped under the unfortunate moniker of Zombie Formalism, raised to momentary heights of forgettability by the Museum of Modern Art’s Forever Now exhibition from 2014, and Phaidon’s book New Elements in Abstract Painting by Bob Nickas from 2009. Before the ongoing political emergency of the past four years, there was a lot of that kind of work floating around the art world, its one saving grace being that it was something other than the kind of Pop Surrealism that was so prevalent throughout the later 1990s. Nonetheless, the willfully nugatory, unresolved and unfinished look of the Zombie Formalists’ attempts at making a Duchampian point about the arbitrariness of formal organization abruptly disappeared in 2016. Moses’s works from the same period turn these tables by reanimating the abstract gesture along different lines. They invite us to see the painterly gesture as an act of respiration and metabolization of life energy absorbed from the four elements, captured as shape-shifting apparitions held in visual place by judicious rhythms that have discarded any need for geometry.
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Ed Moses: “Gesture” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through March 13, 2021.
1. Zenga means “Zen Picture.” A few years after the Los Angeles County Museum of Art inaugurated its new Pavilion of Japanese Art in 1988, it hosted an exhibition of an expansive selection of such paintings initially organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art. See John Stevens and Alice Rae Yelen, Zenga: Brushstrokes of Enlightenment (New Orleans Museum of Art, 1990).
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.