Sleepers Awake


We all know that painting can never come back because it never went away. Nevertheless, no matter how prevalent, relevant, or worthy it is, painting isn’t welcome at the Documentas of the world (unless, of course, it’s made by Luc Tuymans). Which is fine; not only is painting a thing unto itself, in essence it is a denial of all other things.

Whatever painting is, there’s a lot of it out there at the moment. A retrospective of Carroll Dunham’s ballsy, influential paintings opened last week at the New Museum. In the galleries, there are shows of the late, great Peter Cain; the surprisingly steamy recent work of Robert Ryman; exotic dot-mistress Nina Bovasso; metaphysician Toba Khedoori; painter of melancholy babies Yoshitomo Nara; maker of worlds Matthew Ritchie; and funky list-maker Erik Parker.

In addition to these and other shows, two exhibitions in the same 25th Street building stand out. The first because it shows an artist expertly elucidating the act of seeing and the structure of painting, the second because it offers a painter who in this case is a master of the colored pencil and whose tightly compacted, burnished surfaces are carnivals of muddy color. In spite of considerable visual fireworks when viewed close-up, neither show comes on strong. Each in its own way is a sleeper.

For his fourth New York solo since 1998, Alexander Ross, 42, continues to hone a decidedly, perhaps stubbornly, narrow set of self-imposed limitations. In this he is like many painters—some use only rulers or primary colors, others rule out gesture or gloss. Except Ross’s intelligence is so keen and his touch so silky that the rules he makes for himself seem unnecessarily confining.

That said, Ross is one of the best American painters around. It’s great to see his art a few doors down from Ryman, another artist who makes painting’s structure so visible; a block from Ritchie, who has taken a giant step forward in terms of his physical ambition and visual spark; and concurrent with Dunham, who has always experimented with scale, biomorphic form, and the synthesis of abstraction and representation.

These seven cerebral, beautifully made paintings don’t take us to any emotional place Ross’s work hasn’t taken us before, but this place is still palpably disconcerting and tantalizingly alien. All the works are untitled; one resembles a futuristic gargoyle, another an off-register silk screen or double-exposure photograph of coral rendered by Georgia O’Keeffe. Two have a molten look, and recall lunar landscapes; one looks like a cartoon creature with a thought balloon, and another like an enormous corpuscle. All exist in the gap between the synthetic and the natural. Five are irregularly shaped, albeit subtly (corners are rounded, angled, or pointed).

Ross’s palette is, as it has been for a while, an algae or eucalyptus green accompanied by shades of blue and white. His brushwork is regular and creamy and happens stroke by stroke—Morandi meets Chuck Close. There’s a lot of control to his hand, but also a pleasure in the way one tint touches or blends with another. Colors are laid down in gradated shades in deliberate bands, like topographic maps or paint-by-numbers canvases. In the best painting, the one with a cauliflower/extraterrestrial and a squished “Venus” of Willendorf, the empty space is alive with wavy shapes.

By now Ross’s forms are familiar, and call to mind fetuses, creatures from the deep, sponges, faces, blood vessels, or Arcimboldo heads. All exist in this sexy, aqueous, quasi-scientific, semi-surrealistic, almost otherworldly space. Think molecular biology by way of Dalí, Disney, Audubon, and Myron Stout. Ross’s worldview is subtle but deep. I only wish he would let us see more of it and in other colors.

Upstairs at Derek Eller are the amazingly worked-over drawings of Steve DiBenedetto, 44, whose last two painting exhibitions, while wildly over-hung, still qualify him as a notably underrated artist (this is his 10th New York solo since 1987). His small, glutted paintings, which have a modernist flavor, owe much to the looping surrealism of early Matta and the prismatic Orphism of Robert Delaunay; to Soutine and Courbet, both masters of distortion, agitation, and tactility; and to the late-’60s amphetamine-charged scrawls of Bruce Conner.

DiBenedetto’s drawings aren’t as turbid as his paintings, but they’re just as busy. He excels at moiré patterns, weird geometric structures, and a lurid all-overness. His imagery, however, is repetitive and baffling. The squids and octopuses he renders have a calligraphic beauty but are too ambiguous, while the helicopters he deploys neutralize his art and make things more decorative and adolescent than I suspect he intends. If his narrative is supposed to be about some decaying world or “his own personal cosmology,” as the press release says, it doesn’t come through.

But what does is impressive. At first, these circuses of minutiae look like what are sometimes referred to as “stoner drawings” or “art of the pipe”—work done under the influence of drugs. Everything undulates. But this is the opposite of rambling or frantic, fill-every-inch druggie art. All of DiBenedetto’s drawings have an elegant density and a control freak’s attention to detail. In spite of the imagery problems, I love looking at them, especially close-up.