Elizabeth Harris Gallery
529 W. 20th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues,
New York NY 10001
September 4 to October 4, 2003
AN ART CRITIC NEEDS NO PRACTICAL TRAINING, no personal immersion in any aspect of craft. In theory, it is enough for a critic to know his history and to have an eye for the particular cycle of sensibility that marks his own time. The contemporary critic’s job is to articulate that ambient sensibility, increasing its self-awareness and confidence. And he is expected to encourage public recognition in a language useful at table and the lectern.
But there is more to schooling an eye than the horse races of art history. More, too, than shelves of theory, donnish jargon or-as an instance of same-strategies of discourse. So much depends on the ways in which an artist’s hand serves or stymies sensibility. A good critic knows from within how a hand functions as an extension of the eye. Without that fundamental empathy, criticism is no more than a circle dance performed by critics for each other. It is no accident that the most illuminating commentaries on painting and painters have been penned by practitioners. From Vasari to Ruskin, André Lhote to Fairfield Porter-to name only our betters-the experience of painting is often communicated best by those who have lived some time with the terrors of the studio.
Mario Naves, art critic for The New York Observer, has both an eye and a hand. That was apparent two years ago at his first exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. This current show confirms my initial regard for his art and deepens my delight in it. In his artmaking, as in his criticism, his primary concern is for the way a thing looks, not for one or another formalist theory.
On view are nine collages, modestly scaled, their complexity increasing as size diminishes. Paint is the starting point. Naves admits that his collages grew out of dissatisfaction with his own painting . It is a disarming admission, one that prompts him to paint “by other means.” And the means are simple. Paint is dripped, scraped, scumbled, sponged, patted and brushed on pieces of paper that are then torn and rearranged. His technique preserves the accidental aspect of the painting process while it subordinates all randomness to the cognitive, disciplined basis of traditional painting.
Naves’ method relieves him of every painter’s struggle to achieve a particular touch. It saves him from over-painting and the hazards of sustained brush-work. His texture derives from the quality of papers, their creases, folds and variety of over-lapping edges. Color is already dry, fixed on the paper, when he begins to manipulate it. This obviates any risk of slurred or muddy passages. It frees Naves from the pressures of mark-making, permitting him to concentrate exclusively on color and form.
The result is both sensuous and discreet-all calculation hidden by the alchemy of his composition. Everything hinges on shape and placement. His working method is nothing if not deliberate. Yet the overall impression suggests playfulness and the illusion of spontaneity. Each work develops by a process of accretion, like a coral reef, around whichever color piece was fixed at the beginning.
The delicacy of Naves’ touch and the sensibility that drives it reminds me of the work of Kenzo Okada. A Japanese-American painter blessed with an unerring compositional sense, Okada created intricate, gossamer surfaces built on keen attention to nuance and a love of Abstract Expressionism. Naves shares Okada’s gift for subtle tonal shifts within each color area. Every collage on view is a record of delicate refinements, one inextricable from the next.
I only wish the titles [e.g. Boy Genius, Hobnob] were less precious. The watch-while-I-toss-this-off arbitrariness and arch tone is out sync with the intuitive, lovingly observed adjustments that accumulate into an image.