Alexander Ross at Feature Gallery, Gary Hume at Matthew Marks, Magnus von Plessen at Barbara Gladstone
Alexander Ross through April 23 at Feature Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-675-7772.
Gary Hume through April 30 at Matthew Marks, 523 West 24th Street, 212-243-0200.
Magnus von Plessen through April 23 at Barbara Gladstone, 515 West 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-206-9300
A typical Alexander Ross painting is dominated by Triffid -like vegetation set against sky. He favors shaped canvases, consistent, generally flat painthandling, and radical cropping. The most figural of his gruesome, anthropomorphic green forms initially bring to mind Yves Tanguy, with biomorphic personages whose eccentric yet convincing growth patterns relate to inner longings and phobias. But Mr. Ross doesn’t have the same narrative agenda as the French Surrealist. His figures are more self-absorbed, following growth patterns in seeming indifference to their effects on the spectator.
Such iconography, with its funky, sci-fi, pulp-fiction book-cover feel, belongs fair and square in anorak territory. Yet these are paintings of considerable sophistication and verve that belie any inherent nerdishness. Without indulging in irony, Mr. Ross is keenly aware of his own oddity, which makes his intentions as slippery as the things he likes to paints. He has created a universe that’s at once private and impersonal. His forms are weirdly present yet utterly synthetic.
To say that Mr. Ross blurs the distinctions between abstraction and representation, observation, and the conceptual, is a rather academic way of explaining the sensations he arouses. He has an uncanny ability to accentuate simultaneously opposite cognitions: Intellectually, we know his things belong to the realm of the synthetic, yet they arouse a visceral sense of yuckiness.
Mr. Ross’s depiction of invented surfaces comes across as passionately involved with issues of lighting and texture, as if built from actual observation. The blues and whites in the skies are contoured almost like a weather map, or else they look like photographic forms that have been blown up to the point where pixilation structure breaks down. This is very conceptual, and the degrees of saturation or impasto, say, seem color-coded. Yet the impression created is quite the opposite, of local, intuitive, painterly decisions.
Mr. Ross reverses the traditional relationship between image and technique: His iconography is ultimately a metaphor for painting itself, as he experiences it. There are hybrid yet biologically determined growth patterns, complex cell structures, and alive surfaces that glisten and sweat in the open air. Although he is an artist firmly grounded in the style concerns of his generation, painting is a trip to a far away planet.
If there is room on his spaceship for a couple of fellow astronauts, Mr. Ross (born 1960) may want to recruit two painters of his generation who are showing one block away in Chelsea, German Magnus von Plessen (b.1967) and Brit Gary Hume (b.1962). Mr. Hume is one of the Young British Artists who came to the fore in the 1990s. Compatriot neo-conceptualists who have shown in New York recently include Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Martin Creed, and Damien Hirst.
But Mr. Hume presents a double contrast to Mr. Hirst and the latter’s anti-painterly photo-based realism and dark, dramatic nihilism. Mr. Hume’s good-humored painterly nonchalance keeps the viewer guessing as to whether he’s being naïve or cynical. The artist also clearly has the British establishment guessing: He was elected to the Royal Academy , embracing an institution shunned by most of his peers. His present show, at Matthew Marks, is shared with a public space in Germany , the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover .
Perhaps there it was more generously spaced; here in New York it looks somewhat like a one-man academy, with a jumbled variety of forms and attitudes. Some examples relate to Mr. Hume’s first trademark series of paintings, of doors painted in door paint. These typified the YBA ethic of conceptual décor, of having your cake and eating it, so to speak. They operated as dumb, flat jibes at color-field painting, yet they were slick and fun, filling the field of vision nicely.
At a certain level, Mr. Hume persists in testing his own and his viewers credulity that he is actually *painting* — as if that is a weird thing for a savvy young artist to be doing. There are half a dozen variations in this show of a new, circa 2004 motif, his exclamation marks. The “!” seems to say, “Gosh, a painting,” while at the same time its specific shape and placement bring to mind the Suprematist iconography of Malevich, the epitome of the mystical, revolutionary abstractionist.
In other canvases, another Mr. Hume tries his hand at cartooning: a sweet, silly image entitled “Hermaphrodite Polar Bear” (2003), with O’Keefe shapes and Avery hues, offers an underview of this creature’s paws, belly, and genitalia. S/he keeps company with examples of his enamel-painted bronze snowmen. These present a large ball surmounted by a smaller one, and are at once conceptually and formally dainty. Their “point” is that they are rear views, fully in the round (with no front, in other words): fun sculptures that poke fun at sculpture.
Also on offer are leaf forms of considerable stylistic variety: some are doodly, drippy, vaguely Abstract Expressionist-derived, looking with intelligence at Miró. Others have the tight, hard-edge stylization of Alex Katz at his most Japanese. But within this one-man group of Dadaists that is Mr. Hume’s show there is a genuine, earnest, original artist clamoring to be heard.
That artist comes out in the vegetal portraits with titles like “Nicola With Top Hat” and “Nicola as an Orchid.” These have rich, lush, lovingly poured surfaces that seal an elaborate pentimenti underplay of figural forms that the paint seems to caress. They speak of infatuations — whether with painterly activity or an actual woman — free of cyncism. The lyrical energy of this confusing show comes to a rare point of clarity in these works.
Magnus von Plessen is one of the stars of the recent revival of painting in Germany . Still in his 20s, he has had solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and PS1. Such success makes it hard to know how to deal with his charming, somewhat gimmicky technique: Is he playing a joke at the expense of 1950s salon abstraction, or is this just the way he likes to make paintings?
Mr. von Plessen builds images (portraits, interiors) out of stripes of paint laid down with some kind of trowel that gives the impression of a giant palette knife, only without much impasto; the marks are as much about the scraping away as the laying on. Sometimes the cubes are like building blocks, and bring Joel Shapiro’s stick figures to mind. At other times smaller implements are used to achieve subtlety and nuance of color gradation and modeling that belies that kind of constructivism.
The speeds and temperatures of Mr. von Plessen’s painting are similarly all over the place. His context has us thinking “irony,” but the work alone seems like a conservative pleasure.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 7, 2005