The following is an interesting catalogue essay that critic Carter Ratcliff wrote for Brooklyn painter Michael Voss’s 2014 solo show at George Lawson in San Francisco. Ratcliff rightly suggests that painters aren’t resigning themselves to imperfection, but rather cultivating it.
Abstract painting was born from a yearning for absolutes. In 1915 Kazimir Malevich presented his Black Square as absolutely rectilinear, perfectly symmetrical, and precisely right-angled. By 1921 Piet Mondrian had limited his colors to the primaries: pure red, pure yellow, and pure blue with no modification whatsoever. Though Michael Voss is an heir to the tradition they founded, his art has no air of the absolute. In fact, his paintings suggest that he wants to rescue his medium from the absolutism that still haunts it, nearly a century after the appearance of Black Square. He has many reasons for doing that, no doubt, and surely most of them live in regions beyond the reach of language. Nonetheless, a reason—indeed, an impressive reason—for dispensing with absolutism comes to light if we ask not why Voss paints as he does but how. And where.
[Image at top: Michael Voss, Salvador, 2014, oil on linen, 12.5 x 10.75 inches.]
Michael Voss, Antune, 2014, oil on linen, 15.5 x 13.5 inches.
The surface where a painter begins is usually understood as anonymous: an uninflected blank. This is true for Voss, who works on stretched linen, and yet each of his painting has a unique set of dimensions and thus an individual shape that undermines its pristine anonymity. From this subtle refusal of standardization follows the striking individuality of his painted shapes. In Antunes, 2014, a blocky “S” merges with a squarish patch in the upper quadrant to form an orange configuration at once alphabetical and geometric. Or so it looks at first glance. With further looking we see that Voss has made it impossible to assimilate the shape either to the alphabet or to the realm of geometry.
Invoking two systems of signification, he deflects them both, not to dispense with intelligible meaning but to gather it—momentarily—into this orange shape in all its particularity. For its meaning resides in specifics: the shape’s distinctive color, outline, texture, and scale. Quietly imposing, this quasi-“S” blocks our entry into the painting. This is deliberate, for Voss does not invite vision to wander in imaginary depths. He intends his paintings to advance into the room, to be with us in our space. Each of them is meant to be an individual presence among other individuals.
We see this tilt toward the specific throughout the exhibition—in the scrawny gray form of Salvador, 2014, for instance, which could be a hieroglyph for a bird or a bird’s-eye view of a bit of architecture. The slate-green shape in Ford, 2013, might be a sprawling floor plan or the silhouette of the linen surface after it has been removed from its stretcher and casually crumbled. Or something else altogether. A Promise, 2010, prompts us to wonder if the light gray form to the left is independent of the darker gray or ought to be seen as its strangely translucent shadow. Voss doesn’t offer these mysteries for mystery’s sake but to alert us to the experience of making sense of what we see—and to prompt us to see, furthermore, that there is no end to the interpretation of a work of art, just as there is no end to getting to know another individual. Or oneself, for that matter.
In a corner of Voss’s Brooklyn studio is a wall full of paintings on pieces of plywood he has scavenged in his neighborhood. Because he works on them in black, they have the look of drawings: steps on the way to finished works. Yet none of their inky shapes ever reappears in Voss’s paintings on linen. Moreover, the plywood pieces often seem fully realized on their own, idiosyncratic terms. But if that is so why doesn’t he include them on an equal footing with his works on stretched linen? To put the question the other way around: why does Voss paint all his primary works on linen and none of them on the plywood panels? I think it is because the panels, with their flagrantly grainy surfaces and sometimes eccentric shapes, are too rich with what we might call personality. Voss wants his chromatic shapes to emerge from a confrontation with the only slightly qualified impersonality of his freshly primed linen surfaces. He wants them to hold their own against blankness.
However long we spend with the subtleties of Voss’s imagery, we never lose sight of the distinctiveness that first drew us to it. For his shapes and clusters of shapes succeed when they attain the authority, the pictorial weight, of immediate recognizability. Each painting is self-evidently itself and so it makes sense that their titles are sometimes personal names the artist finds imprinted here and there in the urban environment. Yet I don’t mean to imply that he is a covert figure painter, much less a portraitist. We have noted architectural implications in certain of his paintings and all of them are filled with an expansive light that at the very least implies the space of landscape. Literally small, these works are large in scale—and some are immense. Construction for Derek Walcott, 2014, looks like a portion of a very large map and Reyes, 2014, feels geological.
Metaphors and similes are inevitable in the vicinity of Voss’s art, yet we shouldn’t make too much of them. His meanings are to be found in the details of his paintings: their intensely felt textures, their surprising shifts of color, the quirky grandeur of their contours and shapes. Nowhere in his oeuvre do we see him appealing to our liking—or is it our weakness?—for the clear and the resolved. Instead, he induces clarity to question itself. Simplicity turns complex. As it does we may well glimpse one of Voss’s reasons for abandoning the absolutism of Malevich, Mondrian, and their colleagues.
In the art of those abstract painters, the absolute was the emblem of Utopian perfection. Faith in the absolute collapsed decades ago, when it became impossible for artists to promise Utopia or for audiences to believe in such promises. But that is a negative and of course widely shared reason to reject absolutism—and thus resign oneself to imperfection. More positively, Voss chooses not merely to accept but to cultivate the imperfect. More positively still, this cultivation brings about a transformation. The less than perfect becomes the specific, the particular, the individual. Voss’s paintings show us individuality not only realized but aware of—alive to—its own realization.
“Michael Voss: Selected Paintings,” George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco, CA. November 13- December 20, 2014.
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