September 14 – October 30, 2021
For the young, it seems that history is imminent, always at hand, oddly enough because of the joyous ignorance of the responsibility to make it. Or, if one has claims to become gloriously entrenched in Culture’s fossil record, these are quickly replaced by an impatience with how long it might take to recognize – an apostasy of influence.
As a young artist, new to the midtown Manhattan scene from the late 1970s to early 1980s, I must admit I was a prime example of the latter, impatient with the genealogies inherited from the first and second generations of abstract expressionism, minimalism (and beyond), and with the indeterminate uneasiness of so-called pluralism that characterized the polyglot scene of the time. In addition, Colab’s Times Square Show had just happened, so wasn’t the progressive aesthetic supposed to open up widely in the Social? And Generation Images had arrived to shut down Painting once and for all. Amidst this cultural clamor was artist Magoo’s oasis in Tribeca, where beer was relatively cheap and, more importantly, its walls were plural with artwork by Elizabeth Murray, John Torreano and David Reed. The first time I walked in there (a hectic afternoon) I encountered my first Ron Gorchov “shield” painting, telling me with the bluffing confidence of a young punk of their sketchy opinion, ” Here is an extreme measure to atavisticly invoke painting via a primitively distorted format. Yet I was held back, almost against my will. Its evocative construction wedged me somewhere between a 15th century jousting shield and the unique structures bark cloth masks of the Kairak Baining people of New Guinea. And the vaguely painted vertical gestures left and right sporting this “shield” were ominous in their runic call for attention: old-fashioned courageous Yet it was also carefully designed, gemütlichkeit a call that simultaneously put me off at that time, a more urgent pivotal moment when painters such as David Salle and Julian Schnabel historically manifested an appropriate post-historical meaning in their paintings.
Fast forward 40 years to the first posthumous study of Ron Gorchov’s work by Vito Schnabel’s cavernous Chelsea Gallery, going from 1971 to 2017, the distortion of intermediate time reflected in the artist’s concave constructions. The monumental scale of Sigyn (2017) and Arena (1977) more than adequately complete the expanse of the gallery, while the first work in the exhibition, Adjust (1971), maintains a corner of the room with its vertical stack of overlapping horizontal shields. The rest of the works are a variety of more intimate address sizes. Since Gorchov’s most effective canvases tend to target the viewer’s solar plexus, the scale of each becomes important. The closer the scale of his paintings is to a torso, the more they tend to exert body tension. Anything smaller is akin to a portrait mask, anything larger an eardrum sealed environment. The stacked stack of Adjust, as its title indicates, is both a table of equal proportions but also a hierarchical “ground” against which you can pose your silhouette (Gorchov worked for a time designing sets). Seems to be Gorchov’s line of minimal theatrics. His claim to real physical space which rises on a shallow vertical appears, in retrospect, a synthesis of the exploration of the colors of Brice Marden’s early paintings of muted tint bars (as in For Pearl (1970), for example) and the equally contemporary stacked units in steel and plexiglass by Donald Judd.
The show’s title, “Spice of Life,” is taken from a mid-sized 1976 work in which two deep red diamonds, facing inward, symmetrically confront each other over a densely stroked black field. Something in this painting alludes to a bite mark, from a bat or snake, for example, but also, as in most of the artist’s other paintings, to a binocular vision with strong intention. and to its graphic analogy on close examination. It feels like these paintings are staring at you, while your eyes simultaneously negotiate the charged interval of parallax sight that they demand. This wound / eye amalgam immediately realizes that the optic is also the visceral.
In 6th (2006), a large vertical painting hung on the lower level of the gallery, an elongated “shield” supports two large and two small yellow diamonds from Naples grouped at the Stonehenge around a central luminous zone inscribed with a delicate drawing palimpsest to the line. This central painting is surrounded by washes resembling dark gray and black oil paint ink, which drip down either side. It is essentially a sharply painted cromlech, an earthy uterus to envelop the first rays of Phoebus and, with it, the light of a multiple function and meaning.
Sometimes, the artist’s standard format sets up surprising avenues for reflection. In Arena (1977) for example, its bifurcated diamond shapes are chiseled in what seems to oppose Rapa nui heads of idols, painted in burnt umber on a watery light blue-green. An agonistic competition sets in between these two gestures, almost in the ignorance of those who could witness it, and yet this loaded interval between them impresses its weight right between the eyes of the spectator. Something different is happening in Amphora (1975), in which two cerulean blue eyes / wounds hover in a field of yellow ocher. Here, and perhaps because of the associative title, one can imagine the blue as the negative space between the handles of an ancient Greek wine jug, the outline of which extends over the entire extent of the painting. The theme of the container therefore appears as a permanent form in Gorchov’s vision. The inwardly directed arc of his shaped canvases brings the viewer together in a narrowly defined arena, where binocular vision is compressed, and therefore the viewer is forced to perform a metaphysical exercise of the third eye. The artist plays a game with the viewer in which he and both must resign themselves to such confinement in order to mutually increase an awareness of what is possibly at stake. And what is at stake in Gorchov’s work, it’s here beyond pictorial, that such a focused confinement circumscribed so sympathetically.