Rob Ventura’s germy expressionism

Contributed by Patrick Neal / In earlier paintings, artist Rob Ventura explored the anatomical and cellular characteristics of toxic flowers – a menacing subject that would lead to a parallel interest in the structures of disease-causing microorganisms. Ventura had completed new paintings centered on viruses, fungi and bacteria in the early months of 2020, and by the time Covid-19 took hold in March, additional works showcasing prions or parasites were underway. Ventura’s latest one-person exhibition opened in early October, with social distancing, mask wearing, and the pandemic in full swing, as art and life look each other in the face and embrace. Titled “Pathogens,” and on view at Proto Gomez gallery on the Lower East Side, this show features six medium-sized oil paintings on linen.

Rob Ventura, installation view

In Proto Gomez’s small space, three walls present Ventura’s paintings, each surface covered in bright, flat patterns that bristle with energy. The pictures are based on the structures of real pathogens and the titles suggest an array of scary diseases including anthrax, SARS, leprosy, and rabies. We are treated to an assortment of different views, formations and movements of these organisms; among their defining characteristics are spikes, receptors, walls, stems, membranes, particles, chains, globi, vesicles, and envelopes. Although the subject of each pathogen has a basis in actual scientific illustrations or photos, the depictions aren’t literal; instead they run wild with imaginative, poetic riffs and innocent wonder. The compositions are pop and zany like something you’d see in a kid’s coloring book.

Rob Ventura, Pathogen IX (Aspergillus spp.), 2020, oil on linen, 35 x 40 x 1 3/4 inches

Ventura works across the field of the picture plane like an all-over painter and there are interesting formal and conceptual interplays at work. His paintings are chock-a-block with modernist and outsider tropes, delivered in fanciful, surreal ways. Wassily Kandinsky’s musically-based abstractions come to mind, as do the spiky vagina dentata you’d see in an Arshile Gorky or the sinister mechanizations of Lee Bontecou. There are biomorphic references to phenomena like a Venus flytrap, amoeba, oculus or butterfly wing and stick-like, alien or twittering forms, such as those fashioned by Roberto Matta or Jean Tingley. These elements live alongside swirling dots and targets reminiscent of Australian aboriginal art. Scientists often bring wry, scientific classifications to life with colorful and humanizing descriptors – for instance, pink eye, smut disease, spongy architecture, mad cow, ringworm, sick building syndrome, St Anthony’s Fire. Ventura, for his part, appears to be having fun with such fantastical mash-ups of high and low, sacred and profane, deliberation and automatism.

Rob Ventura, Pathogen V (Streptococcus spp.), 2020), oil on linen, 35 x 40 x 1 3/4 inches

Ventura often brushes dappled clusters or lines with a spongy pat-pat-pat touch that resemble the shredded scraps of Rebond foam or the stained tissues of a biopsy seen under a microscope. The surface patterning in his paintings sometimes looks like a textile emblazoned with modernist designs, as if the stylistic motifs of certain masters like Joan Miró or Paul Klee had been usurped and were being sold as rugs. Ventura has worked in ceramics, creating vessels that uncannily resemble the plants placed inside them, a commingling of the organic and industrial, and imagining his painting surfaces as enlarged swatches play up this relation to the applied arts. Many of his earlier flower paintings had heavier accretions of layered paint applied with a muscular touch. The paintings in “Pathogens” have thinner applications of paint, the oil sometimes imparted in transparent veils whereby the colors glow against the white ground. There are shocks of cerulean blue and neon chartreuse set against earthy reds and oranges. A work like Pathogen IX (Aspergillus SPP.) (2020) has the scrambled parts of a toothy and googly-eyed monster rendered in the sweet pink and blues of cotton candy, bubblegum and Sno-cones.

Rob Ventura, Pathogen I ( Mycobacterium leprae), 2020, oil on linen, 35 x 40 x 1 3/4 inches
Rob Ventura, Pathogen II (Bacillus anthracis), 2020, oil on linen, 35 x 40 x 1 3/4 inches

Ventura’s “Pathogens” is perhaps singularly resonant of Terry Winters’s work, despite the two artists’ very different styles and processes. Both Winters and Ventura are highly eclectic, employing a prodigious use of painting techniques, operating across different media and utilizing drawing as an investigatory means to aid and abet painting. Ventura works in crayon, colored pencil, oil pastel and charcoal, while Winters is a master printmaker and draftsman. Both artists draw with water-based mediums like acrylic, watercolor and gouache, and source technical diagrams, structures and cells, whether geometric or organic. Winters has drawn on mitosis and tessellation, and Ventura on organelles, fossils and galaxies. Winters’s motifs result from a process of excavation or layering, and Ventura’s are more topical and free-form. In both cases, however, the work opens itself up to a larger dialogue with painting throughout the ages and its scope continually broadens.

Pathogens: Rob Ventura” at PROTO GOMEZ, 13 Monroe Street, New York, NY. Through November 8, 2020. “Cells: Rob Ventura” at PROTO ZERO, 134 West Main Street, Brook, Indiana. Through December 23, 2020.

NOTE: A related and concurrent Ventura show, titled Cells, at Proto Zero gallery in Brook, Indiana, displays painted, wooden assemblages resembling protein strands and cellular chains, which can be viewed from the street through storefront windows 24/7.

About the author: Patrick Neal is a painter, freelance art writer and longtime resident of Long Island City. His work is included in the inaugural edition of the new online literary arts journal Exquisite Pandemic, founded by author Rick Whitaker. He recently participated in the virtual exhibition “Lost in Isolation,” curated by Void Collective and was a visiting artist at New Jersey City University. 

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