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by michael brennan
at littlejohn contemporary
In representational art the figure defines space. The burden of abstract painting has always been to articulate space without the immediate presence of the figure. Artists took at least the first half of the 20th century to realize this. Kandinsky, Malevich and Picasso began by abstracting -- encoding -- their well defined, local and traditional modes of painting. Now, however, the distance between an abstract painting and anything else in the world is much greater.
Christian Haub exploration of this issue of articulating abstract space is famously seen in his Out of the Blue (for the Quijivix), 1981-85, in which he seems to synthesize theses twin characteristics of abstract and figurative painting with a cross-hair figure line. In a Matissean move, Haub placed a curved line against the straight, perpendicular intersection of two other lines. This painting is deeply described in an essay on Haub included in Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's recent book,Beyond Piety. Gilbert-Rolfe's essay is clear and specific, but it's loaded with terms like mobile stillness, which remind one so much of Mondrian's famous dynamic equilibrium.
An allusion to Mondrian does seem fitting because these new paintings of Haub's, with their configurations of horizontals and verticals, seem informed by Mondrian's subtle and supple placement of tape and paint in his well-known "New York City" series. Haub determines the space of his painting through a tireless redivision and reconstruction of the plane. In Haub's new works the line is drawn by color, and the original plane appears as the plain surface of unpainted plywood.
When I first saw Haub's work in the early 90s at Anne Plumb Gallery, he was making reliefs he called "Floats" exclusively out of Acrylite, which is the neon-colored plastic you see for sale at hardware stores. These reliefs used the bare white wall as their supporting plane, and the color of the plastic plane is uniform except at the cut edge, where it flares out in higher hue. This material effect is dazzling.
Haub's new work at Littlejohn Contemporary is similarly about color. In paintings like Off Track the color of a transparent yellow band is heightened and solidified as it passes over a semi-opaque white. A hair wide line of fluid yellow fills the incised edge of the alternating black bands underneath. This accumulation of lines, of different widths and densities, lend the paintings a nervous, febrile tone. D.H. Lawrence defined a similar kind of aesthetic trembling in his essay on the art of Edgar Allen Poe:
In spiritual love, the contact is purely nervous. The nerves in the lovers are set vibrating in unison like two instruments. The pitch can rise higher and higher. But carry this too far, and the nerves begin to break, to bleed, as it were, and a form of death sets in.
Here is your erotics of abstraction, complete with the bleeding lines, both in word and paint. I think more for Lawrence, rather than Poe or Haub, death was the absolute terminus of any impulse. I find that Haub's vibration is a shrewd form of visual activation, and these are more lively paintings as a result. In Haub's work light strikes the c(h)ord of line, and sonorous space and movement are the result. The work is admirable because its material dialogue is more compelling than any exterior discourse regarding its simplicity. If abstraction must supply its own figure to achieve form, let it be a nervous one. Kasimir Malevich stated in The Non-Objective World:
Nature is nothing other than a human being's surroundings, in the midst of which the activity of his thought, feeling and action--of his nervous system--unfolds.
Littlejohn Contemporary, Jan. 16-Feb. 22, 1997, 41 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.