MINNEAPOLIS — It takes real brass for a painter to revisit geometric abstraction and color theory at this point in the art historical game, but Ruben Nusz is no dilettante in that generations-long conversation. (Full disclosure: I have had an editorial working relationship with the artist in the past, although not recently. He has contributed essays to mnartists.org, where I serve as editor.) In his new series of paintings, Severed Hues, on view at Weinstein Gallery, he’s digging beyond conventions of the medium with erudition, impeccable chops, and an eye toward genuine innovation.
Specifically, he’s looking to disentangle color theory from the constraints of physical pigment, which have dominated the field since Isaac Newton. In his current practice, Nusz aims at creating a unified color theory, an integrated system for understanding colors and their complements that might apply regardless of medium — from painting to web design, printmaking and photography.
The colors in Nusz’s paintings are vivid: jewel-like primaries and inky black offset by shades more typical of printmaking or photography than the painter’s palette — gradations of gray, bright cyan, and magenta. There’s a sense of depth to his geometric configurations: the “stacks” often seem to project from or recede into the picture plane. In some, a semi-translucent band of color seems pulled horizontally across not-quite conjoined boxes of color. In others, an opaque swath of color seems to drape over nested rectangular forms, as if pulled tight at an angle from top to bottom and extending just beyond the outermost “frame,” leaving a shadowed corner of stacked boxes visible beneath .
But what you see — the nested boxes, the frame surrounding and “drape” enshrouding them, the sharply raised borders delineating edges of distinct, constituent sections — is nothing more than paint on canvas. The sense of movement, depth, and shadow, the illusion of separable parts — it’s all masterfully executed trompe l’oeil. And Nusz invites the viewer into the trick: Stand a few feet from the paintings, and the illusion is persuasive, if not wholly coherent. Come closer, and with every step the forms inside the “frame” flatten, the shadows revealed to be cast at impossible angles. The illusion crumbles incrementally as you approach.
It’s an old-fashioned, even scholarly exhibition, a suite of 18 paintings and a handful of informal color studies evincing the artist’s earnest, committed concern with truth and beauty and technical mastery of his craft. Nusz’s paintings are experiments (in interviews he’s likened them to peer-reviewed journal articles) — studies-in-progress of color theory and spatial relationships, as well as the vagaries of perception and entanglements of reality and illusion.
Nusz’s awareness of his predecessors — Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Hans Hoffman, Frank Stella, and others — is plain in every deliberate brush stroke. But his work is far from derivative. His tricky play with light and shadow, his uncanny palette — and attendant innovations in color mixing — have as much to do with photography and print as they do with pigment on canvas.
His is abstraction in the service of representing capital-C, objective Color. He wants to align what’s put on the canvas with the full range of hues our eyes can really see, unfettered from the conventional visual lexicon of painting. In that sense, Nusz is making still lifes of a sort: still lifes of well- and truly severed hues. Except that what one sees on his canvases is never actually still, but restless. His color fields push and pull your gaze, guiding your eye over and under the geometric forms as it tries to find traction on some fixed center that might bind all of the elements together.