Maureen Paley Interim Art London
October 26 to November 26
For just about any other artist, a mention on Sex and the City would mean it was all over. But not for Ross Bleckner - his paintings were a backdrop to cocktails and Upper East Side gossip way before the episode in which the at Wall Street hunk used one of them to lure successfully one of the series' female leads up to his penthouse apartment. So bleckner needn't worry, his paintings have always been so much more than the stuff of a middle-brow make-out: their innate imperviousness to meaning, coupled with the fact that they are always metamorphosing, keeps them one step ahead of being completely assimilated into the mainstream.
There is, however, one easily comprehensible element that is common to all of Bleckner's paintings: light. Indeed, one could even go so far as to suggest that in this very element which has always organized his pictorial field - the most renowned case being the stroboscopic effect he achieved by running a number of dark vertical lines in front of a beam of light. Many critics have claimed that the intensity of such an effect suggests there is a metaphysical dimension to the work. But this is pure hyperbole. Sometimes light is just light - and Bleckner is a master at manipulating it. Surprisingly, in these six new paintings light effects are played down.
The largest of the new paintings, New Radical, (all works 2000), is easily the most impressive. It is organized by an all-over pattern of interlocking circular discs, all of which nudge against one another as they float around in a luminous pictorial space that, from a distance, appears to be kept alive purely through nuances in tone. Move in closer and it becomes clear though how the sheer range of paint handling counterpoints these tonal differences - both of which inform the relative translucency or opacity of the individual discs, in turn determining where they might sit in space. Unusually for Bleckner, the painting is almost modernist in structure, the narrowness of the tonal range working to establish a taut and relatively firm picture plane. Similarly, the slick oil technique of previous paintings - the very element to have announced his repudiation of modernist painting (simultaneously bringing him closer to academic painting and modern photography) - is, for now, left behind. Instead, the paint is matt and dry, almost chalky and cracking at its most opaque points (usually where the discs overlap).
A painting as successful as New Radical is more than enough to reaffirm Bleckner's position as a major painter. But one might dispute the inclusion of the four smallest paintings here. In simply ricocheting between a photographic background of telescoped molecules and a more painterly and colourful foreground of swirling cellular chains, these appear far too binary in configuration, and so are no rival for the subtle nuances of New Radical. In other words, perhaps this modest - and certainly long overdue - solo exhibition attempts to do too much and would have benefited from either presenting a smaller slice of his new paintings, or showing six paintings that were each quite different.
The remaining painting, Linkage Map, just misses; nevertheless, it is successful in retroactively enriching any reading of New Radical. The various cellular structures that float upon the silvery background of Linkage Map are surrounded by a shimmering halo-like effect, clearly created by the white underpainting. Ny returning to New Radical, the way white underpins this painting can now also be perceived: each of the frontal discs are actually planted on top of a white disc of the same circumference, thus lending the former their luminosity. In both paintings, Bleckner just about achieves a continuity with his past by giving us glimpses of light, a peak here, as one of the discs in New Radical does not perfectly eclipse its white underlayer, a hint there, as the silvery scumble of Linkage Map runs dry before reaching the canvas's edge and so allows the white underpainting to breathe.
All of which is to say that, at times, Bleckner's paintings are still as sensually alluring a s ever. It is thus unfortunate that the scriptwriters of Sex and the City altogether missed how loaded their Bleckner quip really was. For previously, the titles and images many of his paintings carried have either registered or memorialized the impact of the AIDS epidemic on New York society. And in a TV series in which each of the lead characters swap bed partners nightly, the use of Bleckner's painting as a lure for unprotected sex strikes one as an overlooked irony.