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“Robin Rose: Evidence”

If ever C.S.I.’s grinds got out of the lab and into the gallery for a busman’s holiday, I imagine they’d take to Robin Rose’s new paintings, intimately scaled abstractions that could at hurried glance pass for monochromes. But they wouldn’t necessarily have that much to say about them. As much as Law & Order and all its franchises depend on the give-and-take of conversation, C.S.I. is about pushing talk to the side: shutting up, holing up, and giving the third degree to whatever ends up on the slab. It isn’t Gil Grissom’s tea party with a dominatrix that makes “Slaves of Las Vegas” a great episode; it’s the time he spends raking over a corpse with ultraviolet light as Sigur Rós provides the soundtrack. (Well, that and the terrific monochrome crane shot of the team digging the body out of a playground sand pit.)

In other words, C.S.I. comes closest of anything on television to representing the art-critical gaze onscreen. Screw all that PBS stuff, in which it’s a given that you’re meant to be licking mental ice cream as the lens drifts across a detail of a canvas or swoons in arcs around a sculpture. Real encounters with the visual entail both rhapsody and suspicion, vulnerability and bloody-mindedness, transport and application, as the practiced eye weighs each new datum against what has come before. Follow the evidence.

I mention all this not just because Rose’s current Numark Gallery show is titled “Evidence,” but because this time out the Washington artist has conveyed what it is to be deeply engaged by the mess of the physical world—albeit from a position of studied disinterest. And he does so with more than a hint of corporeal violence. The palette is mineral, metallic, even filthy. There are blood and iron, mud and shit, all samples for analysis fixed under the impeccable lighting of Numark’s rational white box. Despite the appropriately clinical air of the presentation, “Evidence” is something you feel on your skin. You come out checking your fingernails for dirt.

Over the past decade or so, Rose, who works in encaustic, has perfected a distinctive formal language that avails itself fully of the luminous translucency and obdurate opacity of wax, its slippy liquidity as well as its pasty density. Viewers of his earlier Numark shows will register the overlapping discs, nested whorls, intersecting waves, melting lattices, and viscous beads of the recent work as familiar terrain. But the direction is something altogether new. Until whoever is mulling over the calendar at the Phillips, the Corcoran, or the Kreeger schedules the midcareer retrospective Rose deserves, memory will have to serve. In the past, he has variously deployed his technique toward the sublime, the lyrical, the linguistic—even the decorative. I should have known better, but I didn’t foresee him moving so resolutely toward the material.

All the “Evidence” works are untitled, all are dated 2004, all are encaustic on linen on aluminum Hexcel panel, and all are small- to medium-sized vertical rectangles, the largest being 30 by 24 inches. On paper, they are distinguished by codes ranging from “RR-E04-01” to “RR-E04-15.” On the walls, they are presented without so much as numerals matching them to the checklist. Maps of the gallery’s two rooms allow you to find your way. Prodigious skill is on display, but hand is largely suppressed. It’s as though we are meant to consider these objects not as handmade artifacts, but as natural ones. Rose seems to have temporally positioned himself not before these paintings, as their designer, nor during them, as their maker, but after them, in some kind of diagnostic capacity. Evidence isn’t something you construct; it’s something you collect, through which you look back.

At times, Rose was required to act destructively. “RR-E04-08”’s layered, milky tones of copper, yellow, and white are exposed as though through scouring or burning. The circles’ scars read like tiny meteoric blast craters or the discoloration of a partially ablated heat shield. Low in the picture, one circle is abraded all the way down to the weave of the linen. In “RR-E04-02,” the circles, thicker around the edges, thinner in the middle, some also worn to the weave, read as blood over pustulent metal. The burnished golden fog of “RR-E04-03” has a thick, adhesive quality; in places it appears to have had something dragged against it until it fissured.

In other cases, the artist backed off, and the paintings appear as repositories of earlier occurrences and interactions—event captured as substance by physical happenstance and simply left alone. A chocolate-colored metallic mud oozes across “RR-E04-01,” where tiny beads sparkle like undisturbed droplets of water or dew that might offer clues as to the climate or time of day. Wax suggests sheared, partially polished chrome in “RR-E04-06,” nervous, inky smudges in the right-hand panel of the diptych “RR-E04-14.” Elsewhere, it coheres into raised islands or clumps into earthy slathers at the edges of a panel.

Everywhere is muck, rust, bruise, tear, mar, and stain. It’s been said that this is a show about mortality, dust returning to dust. True enough, but that subject is usually envisioned in symbolic, poetic terms, as sentiment and presentiment, something on the horizon drawing ever closer. Here there is none of that: no weakening-light, shortening-days, tolling-bells nonsense.

If Rose could be called a Romantic for positioning mortal man against eternal nature, he is a peculiarly dry-eyed, unblinking one. In “Evidence,” his concerns are substantive rather than spiritual, his temper analytical rather than emotional, his motivations forensic rather than generative. His project, then, is to enact not a latter-day Romanticism, but its inversion, in which the brute fact of an ending proceeds directly from under your feet to under the scope. Yes, Rose’s is a new world of wonders—but it’s also one in which the cosmos’s immediate interest in us is what sort of mark we’ll leave on the road. CP