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Homogeneity as crisp-edged and chrome-plated as Adam Ross’ doesn’t come around often. People have tried it, certainly: Walter Gropius in ’20s Dessau. George and Robert Alexander in ’50s Palm Springs. Peter Celsing in ’60s Stockholm. But they all made samenesses folks could actually live in. Ross’ glorious city of tomorrow is a bloodless, airless place. Naturally, it’s entirely devoid of people.
The 10 works by the Los Angeles–based painter currently on view at Numark Gallery offer visions of a fantasy world dominated by rhomboids and parallelograms that call to mind gleaming, futuristic skyscrapers. They’re coolly executed, looking almost airbrushed—or possibly assembled from some metallic or crystalline stuff that’s been cut into precisely ruled geometries. Critics have pointed out that these images look a lot like cover art from classic science-fiction books, particularly the paintings Richard M. Powers did for J.G. Ballard’s works in the ’60s and early ’70s.
Of course, those images, of loopy biomorphic structures rising from some desolate, alien-looking desert, were themselves an homage to paintings made by Franco-American surrealist Yves Tanguy in the ’30s and ’40s. By referring to them, Ross places himself at arm’s length from potential art-historical forbears—not only the surrealists, whose dioramalike dream worlds provide the blueprint for the construction of Ross’ pictorial spaces, but also the cubists and futurists, whose hard-edged, faceted forms are mirrored in Ross’ own.
In the 36-inch-by-48-inch Untitled (2006), as in nearly all of Ross’ paintings, there’s another, more emphatic erasure of history: something dark and sinister hovering in the background. A billowing expanse of smoky umber, it’s ominously set in the right-hand third of the picture, sitting on the ultramarine horizon like fallout from a far-off nuclear blast. Flickering near the bottom of the canvas is a broken, apparently palette-knifed trail of fluorescent orange—a column of fire rising between two doomed buildings? Perhaps. Other works place the same color in what might be a glowering, apocalypse-sundered sky. Everywhere, there are mushroom clouds.
The show’s press materials attempt to cast all of this in the light of 9/11, claiming that Ross’ images reflect some lingering sense of apocalyptic dread. But by stitching together various slightly musty visual codes for depicting the future, the artist defuses such ominous associations with recent history—or at least makes those references seem parodic. His disaster scenarios look about as visceral and threatening as a vintage arcade game—say, Missile Command, the one in which a handful of blocky little cities eventually get zapped by inexorably descending nukes.
If that narrative seems too literal for works that suggest such subjects more than they actually depict them, well, it should be. Yet Ross makes it nearly impossible to look at his pieces merely as formal statements. No matter how stripped-down his pictures might get, Ross is no Piet Mondrian. There’s no expression of “mind-matter dualism” here, no attempt to shut down all extraneous associations in the name of pure expression and objective truth. Even the colors of Ross’ odd architectural concatenations are a winking period revival: Typically a range of grayish-greens and bluish-silvers played against unnatural shades of orange and peach, they’re very much the palette of an ’80s interior designer.
In the 16-inch-by-20-inch Untitled (2006), a single blood-red amoeba of pigment hovers in the center of the image, crossed diagonally by a ribbon of complementary blue-green rectangles. Indeed, warm and cool complements are nearly always assigned to competing shapes—some to organic blobs and stains, others to controlled geometrics. The paintings are all impeccably balanced and well-crafted, right down to the crisp, cleanly incised lines that show where Ross masked off his support. Because there’s nothing arbitrary in these works, it’s safe to say that all of the playful associations with science fiction, outdated modes of art-making, video games, and Miami Vice interiors are intentional. It’s all a tad predictable, though, adding up to yet another intertextualized postmodern renunciation of faith in the future of pictorial abstraction—or of painting in general. Worse, it starts to look samey, even in this small run of pieces.
It’s ironic that Ross is at his most powerful when he indulges in a little early-modernist purity. The 48-inch-by-60-inch Untitled (2005) is nearly consumed by a giant nebula of inky black pigment. This dark expanse, looking like a spontaneously applied bucketful of murky watercolor, fills the canvas edge to edge, conjuring cancerous cells or a gaping wound. There’s no single mushroom cloud here—just a burned-out sky filled with holes. Two thin elongated slivers of gray form uprights in the left and right margins of the picture; a segmented web tenuously joins them, resembling one of Duchamp’s cubofuturist Virgin/Bride paintings. Though the quotation is clear, there’s a persistent ambiguity, heightened by the restricted palette and spare composition. Is this view exterior or interior? Of something vast or microscopic? Is the darkness advancing or retreating? In this case, any narrative really would be too literal.
The show’s two works on paper display even more definite allusions to surrealism and the free play of the subconscious. In one, thin, ruled graphite lines on the left-hand side of a white sheet of Bristol board echo the building forms in Ross’ paintings. But just right of center rises a strange treelike shape with a large, uneven square opening at its center. Branches snake off, here coalescing into a web of shakily drawn, scratchy rectangles, there supporting diaphanous clouds of pale viridian and murky brown watercolor. It’s an environment at once less calculated and more alien than those of the oils.
Too bad the other works in the show are generally polite, decorative, and calculated explorations of binary opposites that do little more than send up abstraction’s genesis in the early 20th century. One might think here of Gerhard Richter, who’s always frankly admitted the fallen nature of painting but presses forward nonetheless—not because of some deep-seated desire to return to the untroubled past but because, in many ways, his work is about testing how far our attitudes and perceptions have evolved. As Richter has said of his own forays into abstract painting: “[If Mondrian’s pictures] can also be understood as models of society, then I can also regard my abstractions as parables…[S]een in this way, what I’m attempting in each picture is nothing other than this: to bring together, in a living and viable way, the most different and the most contradictory elements in the greatest possible freedom. Not paradise.”
Ross, too, freely brings together contradictory elements. And he certainly doesn’t offer us paradise. At his best, what he does offer is surprise, by pushing the anachronistic imaginings every age has of a far-off future into territory even stranger than that envisioned by his source material. The majority of his paintings at Numark, however, are a mixed bag of clean lines, bad vibes, and recurrent overstatement. True, it would be absurd to expect him to give us a real window into the future. But Ross seems too easily satisfied with superficial correspondences, with looking no further than the next ironic quotation as he tentatively connects his few disparate threads. This is art nicely attuned to its time: Both seem hopelessly myopic.CP