|EVOCATIVE CELLS: UPTOWN, DOWNTOWN, ALL AROUND
There's a lot of Ross Bleckner to see in New York City right now, with two gallery exhibitions and a spate of Absolut Vodka ads in glossy magazines. Taken together they suggest an artist in search of diplomatic immunity, that is, easy travel to different artistic planets, from mystical light-filled abstraction to political art to popular illustration. They also provide a particularly clear view of Mr. Bleckner's strengths and weaknesses and his tendency to undermine and cheapen his own accomplishments.
The gallery shows are at Lehmann Maupin in SoHo and at the artist's longtime home base, Mary Boone, on 57th Street. The Lehmann Maupin show, which includes a soupçon of political photo-based work (a new tangent for the artist), features some of the best paintings he has made in years, maybe ever. Seductive, refined, dominated by his characteristic grisaille palette and infused with a melancholy inner light, these works treat motifs and effects that the artist has pursued for years but with a new economy and force.
Thankfully, Mr. Bleckner has jettisoned the greasily varnished fields dotted with birds, flowers or flares of light that dominated so many canvases in his 1995 mid-career survey at the Guggenheim Museum. While those works were often described as memorials to the devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic, such meanings seem largely tacked on by admirers. What really came across was an air of slick Victorian kitschiness.
In these new works, gray-toned expanses of tiny overlapping shapes suggest tiny cells, the transparent cytoplasm of larger cells, microscopic views or cross sections of skin or fish scales. They evoke illness and the body more concretely but also more abstractly than anything that Mr. Bleckner has done before. They also resurrect his penchant for Op Art-like effects but seem less a quotation of the earlier style than an attempt to extend it.
The fields are generated by a real dazzler of a technique: hundreds of quick, closely spaced bursts from an airbrush transform still-wet surfaces dotted with circles and spheres into fluctuating networks of cells and shadowy forms. (Think of Yayoi Kusama nets painted in the style of Roger Brown's tightly rendered shaded clouds.) In fact, the new technique is sodazzling that the first reaction to these paintings may simply be, "How were these things made?," followed quickly by a close-up examination of the surface, which doesn't explain much. You can almost forget to back up and look at them whole, which is something of a weakness. Such mysterious high finish goes bravely against the grain of most current abstraction's emphasis on self-evident process; it's even mildly Victorian (we also look closely at paintings by Edward Burne-Jones or Richard Dadd to try to see how they're made) but with a contemporary sci-fi edge.
It is not surprising that one of two paintings titled "Tolerance," in which the little cell-shapes are organized into a big mandalalike dome or wheel, is the best work here. Its concentric circles and radiating spokes add a larger purpose to the tiny pulsating units. In addition, it is more loosely worked: the airbrushed cell-shapes read more clearly as the little pool-like clearings of paint that they really are. And they're not continuous; patches of Mr. Bleckner's casually brushed underlayer remain visible.
Having returned to more abstract imagery, Mr. Bleckner presents his political conscience as a kind of side dish. Along one wall at Lehmann Maupin are a series of photographs of page A3 of the New York Times, all with a major international story appearing beside an ad for Tiffany's. This kind of appropriation was done much better nearly 20 years ago by some of Mr. Bleckner's contemporaries, among them Richard Prince and Sarah Charlesworth. In addition, this juxtaposition of images of harsh reality (war-torn Bosnia, for example) with smug promotions of high-priced elegance seems disingenuous, considering that Mr. Bleckner's paintings belong to the second category themselves.
Things deteriorate further at Boone, where Mr. Bleckner essentially puts his new technique into overproduction, something he has done before. The addition of stronger colors makes the paintings seem more obvious and cloying. DNA-like chains of cells come in pleasant shades of blue, yellow and pink; red is added to other works so that blood cells and scientific illustrations are evoked. And the airbrush technique seems to tighten, which means that many of the cells seem to be made of jelly-beans or beads; suddenly the paintings seem more photo-realist than abstract.
The vodka ads, which also feature the cell-shape surface, are something like the last straw. In this context, a motif intended to set off a certain visual and poetic resonance is leveled, stripped of seriousness and reduced to entertainment. There are very few artists whose work can travel from art gallery to magazine advertisements and retain anything close to their character; Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger are possible exceptions. It would be easy to say that Mr. Bleckner misunderstands his own art if he thinks it can, too, but maybe the misunderstanding is ours.
Ross Bleckner's new work remains at Lehmann Maupin, 39 Greene Street, near Grand Street, SoHo, and the Mary Boone Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, near 57th Street, through Jan. 19.