Heartbeats: The Spanish Rhythms of Juan Uslé
Juan Uslé: Membrana Porosa at Cheim & Read
May 5 to June 18, 2016
547 W. 25th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 242 7727
Spanish painter Juan Uslé’s recent work, now on view at Cheim & Read, bears an inseparable connection with environmental conditions experienced out of doors, and out of an urban scape, perhaps. That low, raking illumination at dusk, the change physically in our receptiveness to color and tonal contrasts when surrounded by fading light in the transition from day to night, are all more intense, slower, and more subtle away from the noise and artificial illumination of the city. I say “perhaps” because in the city there is that incredible moment when fading natural light combines with electric light. All of this, it seems, both informs and is contained in, these new canvases.
There are only three sizes of canvas present, SOÑE QUE REVELABAS (COLORADO) (2016) is an example of a series of paintings begun in 1997 and is rendered in the largest size. The other paintings are considerably smaller, at 24 by 18 inches and 18 by 12 inches, respectively, and also belong to longstanding series in their own right. The earlier paintings often comprised vertical as well as horizontal brush marks that moved and stopped, moved and stopped, sequentially, to the rhythm of the artist’s heartbeat. These paintings, when made in New York are frequently made at night when the city is somewhat quieter, and the heartbeat can be felt in the silence, varying as it does, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, over time. At 120 by 89 inches, the field of this painting visibly absorbs light and reflects it at different intervals. The light reflected is modified by the paint that covers a prepped gessoed surface in uneven — fluid, abrupt or staggered — rhythms. The gradations recall the restless, wrist-driven, backgrounds of Goya’s Los caprichos (1797–1798) or the apparently black surroundings of Velázquez’s Cristo Crucificado (1632). The Velázquez is 98 by 67 inches, a large painting that presents an image of Christ on the cross in an isolated and classical contrapposto posture The apparently black surroundings, or ground, of the figure are not actually black but a kind of unfathomable green black consisting of a multitude of brush strokes that accumulate and with their different directions pulse and variegate the light that falls onto the painted surface. It is a surface alive with the repetitions of Velázquez’s hand in motion in a way like the stepped movement of Uslé’s hand as it tracks across a painting.
In Kayak (Aral 11) (2015), like the other small paintings here, demands its share of wall space. In regarding the space afforded between paintings in the installation, it comes as no surprise that the smaller works require as much wall space as large works. In Kayak shares the horizontal repetitions, each one above the next, of SOÑE QUE REVELABAS (COLARADO). However, the change in scale takes us closer to the painting in a different way, the view now close, like a person is close to the water in an actual kayak, something Uslé experiences regularly. Between each band of black horizontal translucent brush strokes that deposit the pigment loaded into a medium of vinyl at intervals, like silt, are lines of opaque paint of various colors. The final, bottom passage, though, is not, as might be expected, more translucent paint, but instead another band, this time of opaque black. One’s eyes have to adjust as if to perceive a shadow or afterimage. This increases the complexity of this painting in denying expectation, both in beauty and structure, exponentially.
In part three of George Kubler’s book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962), titled “The Propagation of Things,” Kubler writes:
The occurrence of things is governed by our changing attitude to the process of invention, repetition, and discard. Without invention there would be only stale routine. Without copying there would never be enough of any man-made thing, and without waste or discard too many things would outlast their usefulness. Our attitudes towards these processes are themselves in constant change, so that we confront the double difficulty of charting changes in things, together with tracing the change in ideas about change.
He goes on to state that a condition of the present is the acceptance of continual change. It is this that Uslé’s paintings embody, even celebrate, successfully, neither avoiding repetition nor denying difference. All the paintings in this exhibition are part of larger series, and each painting is assertively particular despite, or one could say because of sharing a continuity of formal elements.