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by michael brennan
at pamela auchincloss
Light is the issue. It has been for the longest time with painting, and it's the most forward issue in Christian Garnett's new paintings, which inaugurated Pamela Auchincloss' new Chelsea space at the beginning of this year.
Visually speaking, light defines form. Painting without light is impossible, and painting without luminosity is deadly. All painting refers to light of some kind, natural or otherwise, but most paintings lack the splendor of right light, that special gleam that derives from an attentive artist's strong sense of light and color. From Bellini to Mondrian, when artists isolate the right quality of light, the effect is always immediate. And the effect is what is interesting -- how and why does the light affect us? Especially now, during winter hours. After all, as James Turrell once glibly noted, "all light is just the byproduct of burning gases."
Lately, many of us have been awash in digital light; Pixar brand Toy Story light, where the light falls always accurately but without warmth or luster. Bright and clear, it still seems sealed and airless. Painting and film photography are chemical examples of analog light, reconstituted and suspended impressions of light defining image and space. Late de Kooning paintings, like those lately on view at MoMA, Matthew Marks and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, refer to the natural North Atlantic light of East Hampton. Gerhard Richter's paintings, whether figurative or abstract, always seem derivative of Polaroid-type light; soft-edged and slightly rosy.
Christian Garnett's new paintings strike me as a synthesis of all three types of light; natural light shading into analog and digital. Like any good movie by Krzysztof Kieslowski or Wong Kar-Wi, these paintings, as lean as they are, incorporate the visual sensations of all types of encountered passing light: brake lights after breakfast, squinty glare during the day, "magic hour" at dusk, neon roadside at night. When it comes to the issue of light, there is no gap between painting and film, the magic lantern requires magic hands too. George Lucas behaves like a painter when he digitally and endlessly retouches finished (?) frames of film. The true subject between painting and film, light, is universal in property but diverse in manifestation. The argument between them is really just over and under forms of seductive radiation.
Christian Garnett's new paintings are keenly seductive. This is a taut little series, and a great leap forward for the artist. All of the paintings are quite similar in image. Usually a central white light area is drawn and expanded from two grayed sideline edges, and is warmed by the grounds' colored undertone, sometimes orange. The protruding cylinder illusion is unavoidable, and so strong that the paintings appear to warp and bulge even when you are looking at shadows along their bottom. This gives the paintings a kind of artificial gravity of their own, and of course light is ruled by gravity. Instead of a natural drift into an immersion experience in total white light, the viewing experience is grounded by this wraparound convexity and belied by the physical nature of the paintings' finish.
The most interesting paradox of these works is that their ephemeral image is the result of an extremely physical process, most immediately indicated by small surface streaks and scars that reveal the pure color of the underpainting. Garnett repeatedly works the surfaces of these paintings with a homemade, twin-handled five-foot blade, not unlike a contractor's giant swimming pool trowel. Garnett restlessly works the paint until he achieves the pitch and blending he desires. Lesser painters would use the make-up style brushes of a TV show painter and end up with a nicely blended frou-frou exercise in gray-scale gradation. Garnett's real achievement is that he has found an appropriate way to reveal the elusive humanity we associate with white light, and he has made the fleeting tactile, ready for interface on equal terms with the viewer. Painting is slow? People are slower.
If a contemporary Annunciation were to be painted and be credible, how would that image be revealed to the viewer? Medieval philosopher Robert Grosseteste on the rarefaction of a "one light" principle hypothesized:
The form and perfection of all bodies is light (lux), but in the higher bodies it is more spiritual and simple, whereas in the lower bodies it is more corporeal and multiplied. Furthermore all bodies are not of the same form even though they all proceed from light, whether simple or multiplied, just as all numbers are not the same in form despite the fact that they are all derived from unity by a greater or lesser multiplication.
Like the famous Dan Flavin Tatlin sculptures presently on display at the new and fabulous Danese Gallery on 57th St., these paintings are unsettling because, in a sense, they are their own light source. Christian Garnett's new paintings are wonderful because they are the tight reminders of lightness that cure by Chroma.