Alexander Ross at Marianne Boesky and David Nolan
Marianne Boesky Gallery
509 W 24th Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-680-9889
ALEXANDER ROSS: Recent Drawings
David Nolan Gallery
560 Broadway at Prince Street, 212-925-6190
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 27, 2008 under the heading “Alien Resurrection”
The art of Alexander Ross is contagious on many levels. Highly prolific, his labor-intensive paintings and drawings fill both the voluminous, museumlike Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea and the Soho premises of David Nolan. There is, too, a proliferation of mediums and processes, especially in his works on paper, which have now come to include collage. His imagery is concerned with strange growth patterns, with odd cellular structures metastasizing, imparting an ominous sense of alien substances spreading like the plague. Above all, though, it is his aesthetic impact that feels diseaselike. His giddy surfaces are icky, sickly, and yet addictive.
Mr. Ross, who was born in 1960, came to art world attention in the late 1990s with imagery and a modus operandi that arrived fully-fledged and has remained you might almost say relentlessly consistent, as the display at David Nolan, which includes a room of earlier work, demonstrates. His work is populated by structures that are poised disconcertingly between the organic and the synthetic. A typical painting depicts a cluster of gooey, globular shapes that could equally be thought to have been pulled together by some erratic gravity, or else to have grown out of each other, following their own perverse morphology.
Irritatingly, for viewer and reviewer alike, the works are all untitled, but, somehow, that is of a piece with Mr. Ross’s unlovely aesthetic: These are anonymous, alien forms that discourage familiarity or empathy at any level.
Mr. Ross has evolved a way of working that entails a back and forth between specificity and generalization. He constructs elaborate models from Plastecine, photographs the models, then paints from the photographs. The drawings would seem to entail a freer, more improvisatory method.
He uses paint in a way that captures the forms’ sweat and has them glow in an intense, sickly light. His palette, like the forms themselves, trades in ambiguity, with greens that suggest vegetal growth but avoid healthy, terrestrial associations: It is the unnatural nature of a science-fiction imagination. The compositions are completely scaleless: These forms could be microscopic or the size of planets. But while scale cannot be determined, the view is always cropped: Whether honing in or offering a long view, it is implied that the form or constellation of forms continues. The implication of bigger forms intruding into the space of his drawings is accentuated, in a series at Nolan from 2007, where the bottom left corner is diagonally “amputated” as artist Carroll Dunham describes it in the exhibition catalog.
Using the gallery’s accession numbers, “Boesky 1729” (2007) is an 8-foot-high canvas in portrait format, a close-up that fills the whole composition with meticulously rendered skin. “B2071” (2007), by comparison, is a tight cluster of irregularly shaped little green nuggets wedged together in an almost circular shape, with a set against a pale blue (sky-like) ground. You get the sense of each form’s having been pinched or perforated. Similarly, in “B1212” (2006) the grooves and faceting of each form has connotations of folds and creases that are more animal than vegetable. In this composition, six distinct personages cluster together in a closely cropped all-over view, and unusually include, along with the familiar green hues, a purple, an orange, and two blues. “B2273” (2008) looks like a corner of a much bigger constellation that might be moving into the picture space. While the surrounding space is the sky-like pale blue, achieved in scumbled, painterly brushstrokes, at the bottom left of the composition, a negative space between green blobs is brash scarlet, put down in a jolting matte finish that suggests a totally different space, in a different dimension.
At multiple levels, Mr. Ross is a collapser of dualities. Stylistically, he combines high and low artforms, relating equally to art historical precedents and popular science fiction illustration. His nebulous forms hover between abstraction and representation: At a literal level, they are representations of abstract forms, painted as they are from his photographs of actual, made objects; within the realm of imagery, however, they are abstractions of somehow credible forms with a life of their own.
Art historically, Mr. Ross’s touchstone is Surrealism, but, there again, in his embrace of a movement that contained competing attitudes towards method and mode, he offers synthesis in place of dialectics. Surrealist painters were split between those, like René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí, who depicted surreal themes — dreams, desires, the uncanny — in tight style, whether illustrational or academic, and others, like Joan Miró, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, who, though dealing with similar imagery, embraced modernist approaches that embodied the Surrealist ideals of automatism and chance effects as ways of triggering unconscious forces.
Mr. Ross’s method combines elements of both tendencies, and looks to or like images of all the artists mentioned. There is a stand-off sense of cool, rational depiction at work in the realization of images that exist a priori. But there is also a sense that the act of making in turn triggers ways that forms can grow. In Mr. Ross, in other words, there is an organic unity between form and content.
A consistent feature of Mr. Ross’s paint handling is that in selective areas he builds up what register as contours on a weather map or gradational models. This impasto is highly deliberated and therefore conceptual rather than painterly. And yet, it has a visceral effect, making for engaging, present surfaces that trigger emotional responses.
If his skill and calculation as a painter makes for workmanlike, unloved surfaces, they also make sense of his project, his coolness, his weirdness. In graphic works, Mr. Ross comes back to a different sort of life. More freely inventive, they encourage him to collide languages. Ever medium-specific, he taps different sensibilities with each tool or substance, allowing for contrastive emotional distances and degrees of investment. But still, in his production-compulsion he is like an automaton. It is as if his own, weird creations are extraterrestrial taskmasters.