Can an abstract painting be tender and tough at the same time? This is one of the critical esthetic oppositions called into question by the quirky and original works of the German artist Ingo Meller.
The 13 works in this show all follow the same rigorous methodology-driven format that Meller has explored since his European debut in 1985. He paints his modestly scaled works flat on a table, on pieces of linen cut according to their weave. He lays down strokes of heavily impastoed out-of-the-tube oil color and then mounts these irregular rectangles flush to the gallery wall. This way, the object-like nature of the cloth support reads in an aggressively literal manner.
The works typically contain only three or four isolated colors laid down in quick, decisive hatch-like vertical and horizontal marks. Often, bright chromatic yellows and reds play off against deeper crimson reds, earth browns and blue-greens. Meller never mixes his own colors or changes the consistency of the paint that comes out of the manufacturer's tube, so that the degrees of matte and gloss are brand-specific. So too is the feeling of sticky stubbornness that this paint carries as it is dragged against the dry grain of the linen. The brush strokes never cover the whole, but are put down as singular marks. Where the swathes of color collide or overlap, they intermingle, making for areas of juicy wet-into-wet mixing. As for titles, Meller just lists the brand-name colors employed and the date.
Meller's paintings create a nice tension between a hands-on and hands-off sensibility. At first, they appear haphazard, offhand in their quick method. Collectively, though, they come across more considered: they manage to appear at the same time lushly expressive and coldly objective. Throughout, Meller plays a feeling of urgency against a more measured tone of hesitation.
Those viewers encountering Meller's work for the first time may well wonder what underlying philosophy drives his seemingly narrow program. In his clearly-worded artist statements, the artist has displayed a steely Germanic reserve. He foremost emphasizes the procedural aspect of his work, as in this 1996 explanation: "I paint in oils, on canvas, using brushes of various sizes. These are constants in my work, and they place me in a certain tradition."
Given this literalist ideological slant, Meller, has had his worked pigeonholed as "radical painting," placing him as a younger-generation (born 1955) follower in the severe tradition of such U.S. artists as Marcia Hafif, Joseph Marioni and Jerry Zeniuk, as well as European progenitors such as Günter Umberg.
Such categorization also derives from the axis of galleries that have promoted Meller's work in the past: Galerie Nächst St. Stephan, Rosemarie Schwartzwälder, in Vienna; Gallery S65, Aalst, Belgium; and here in the U.S., Stark, where Meller made his low-profile American debut in 1996. All are known for showing hard-core abstraction, particularly monochrome-related work.
More recently, however, with Meller's inclusion in the David Moos-curated "Theories of the Decorative" at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, he was placed in the more general context of painters such as Philip Taaffe, Beatriz Milhazes, Fabiàn Marcaccio, Juan Uslé and David Reed.
For watchers of New York gallery trends, the Cheim & Read decision to exhibit Meller's work is of interest. John Cheim and Howard Read made news last year when they split from their prestigious posts at Robert Miller to found their own gallery in the former Larry Gagosian space on West 23rd Street. To date, they have largely stuck to featuring artists with whom they had worked at Miller: Adam Fuss, Juan Uslé, Joan Mitchell and Louise Bourgeois, to name a few.
Slowly, Cheim & Read are staking out some new territory on their own, notably with last fall's show of the always-interesting Richmond Burton (formerly of Matthew Marks) and now, with the subtle and intellectually-rigorous Meller. For those interested in abstract painting, these are encouraging indicators of the possible shape of things to come.
Ingo Meller, Jan. 14-Feb. 28, 1998, at Cheim & Read, 521 West 23rd St., New York, N.Y. 10011.