The Importance of Being Neher
Ross Neher at M-13/Howard Scott

by Dominique Nahas

You'll notice a little bench in this spacious gallery near one of M-13's columns. Take it with you as you go around the gallery looking at Ross Neher's oils on linen, his oils on paper and his watercolors. You're going to need it. This exhibition has optical and perceptual tricks up its sleeve, and plenty of emotional impact.

The press release at the gallery informs us that Naher's trip in 1993 to the Palazzo dei Consoli in Gubbio, Italy, seems to have been epiphanous. It inspired him to forgo depicting the actual building as he had done in prior years. A reevaluation of his work led him to attempt to delineate the spatial feel of the Palazzo's magnificent piazza instead of the edifice itself. For Naher this was a decisive moment; the building would be experienced through its absence, as the conventions and history of Western perspective would be invigorated by applying its tenets within a minimalist format.

Naher's paintings are thick monochromes. There are blue paintings as well as red ones and yellow ones. Each one is burnished to a high matte sheen. This matteness is one of the marvels of the exhibition. Evidently taking great pains to arrive at these unreflective surfaces, Naher uses them as the springboards for his optical effects. The surfaces assert the paintings' physicality and their groundedness in matter. No sheen or reflections intrudes to dematerialize the object; dematerialization occurs using another principle. Ethereal optical sensations emanate from these saturated surfaces and feelings sensations of weightlessness are amplified through the physicality of the application of the paint and the crucial compositions whose two formats vary slightly. By using a clear, simplified compositional structure of three diagonal lines that converge at a horizon line, while keeping a fourth line horizontal, Naher insinuates the presence of the locale's steps and walls, a place that leads you to an edge of space at the mid-way point of each painting. Through this synthetic perspective, the eye of the viewer travels quickly along a wedge of space, and is catapulted outward beyond the horizon line and inward into deep coloristic space filled with light. This is an account of the mechanics of the experience.

But seeing, as they say, is believing. And as I say, that little bench will come in handy. You'll need it to sit quietly in order to let your eyes relax as they rest on the surface of each painting as it works its magic.

Ancora, 1996 is a large painting on the wall opposite the entrance door across the gallery floor. It's primarily a cerulean blue object that wanders into thalos and the cobalts; only after a while will your retina discern the viridian greens that percolate through the various blues at the walls' edges in the composition. As you keep looking at the painting, what originally seemed to be flat areas become spatially involuted: volumetric density disintegrates into pure space and haloed light, and soon, the reverse happens, as atmospheric tonalities harden into planar contours. The prize here is the optical sumptuousness at play.

Notice the bottom edges of each painting. The undercoats of paint are revealed as archeological layers revealing the history of the painting's own making, a device which brings all of this back into reality, away from science-fair tricks, away from clinical detachment, and into high and committed artmaking. Naher's shimmering inverses of spatiality have a tremorous quality that is especially appealing. The deckled edges of his paintings create fragile, willowy, silhouetted settings for his quivering optical experiences to take place. Familia, 1995 is in a niche to the right of Quartetto Italiano, 1996, the four panel-piece immediately to your left as you enter the gallery. Familia is another blue painting, and it overwhelms you with its nuances and subtleties.

In Quartetto Italiano, of the four yellow paintings don't miss spending time looking over the richness of the second panel from the left. This painting makes the eye travel through planes playfully oscillating between Naples yellow against yellow ochres. A must see.

I've never been to Gubbio, the famous little medieval town in Umbria that so inspired Naher. And I can't report on the success or failure of the artist's attempted re-creation of the town square's spatial verisimilitude. What I can report is that the recessional elements and coloristic play within the pictorial space of the artist's massive paintings contain a quality of emanating light and volumetric expansiveness that is as exhilarating as the introspection they foster in this viewer. A very good exhibition.

Copyright ©1997 Dominique Nahas & REVIEW All Rights Reserved

Dominique Nahas is former chief curator of contemporary art at Everson Museum and former director of the Neuberger Museum. He is now an independent curator, critic and art historian.