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When I asked Juan Uslé about a particular brushstroke, in an interview that I did for the Brooklyn Rail in April 2011, this is what he said:
I think you’re referring to the brushstrokes arranged in sequence, like large rulers, which at once occupy and construct the space of the black (dark) paintings that I call “Soñé que Revelabas” (“I Dreamed That You Revealed”). Yes, they are discontinuous brushstrokes produced by intermittent contact: I move the brush and press down until the next heartbeat occurs. I try to follow a sequential rhythm, marked by the beating of my pulse, and that’s why I almost always work on these paintings at night, especially here in New York, because it takes concentration and silence in order to feel it.
In his current exhibition, Membrana Porosa, at Cheim and Read (May 5 – June 18, 2016), the artist’s first in New York since 2011, Uslé shows fourteen paintings in the gallery’s four distinct spaces.
The eight large paintings are from the ongoing series, “Soñé que Revelabas” (“I Dreamed That You Revealed”), which he started in 1997, along with the six modestly scaled paintings, none which are part of the series. The large paintings are over nine feet by seven feet, while the modestly scaled paintings go from eighteen by twelve inches to twenty-four by eighteen inches. Despite the difference in size, both groups of paintings can be seen from a distance and from close-up: they are open to different kinds of looking, largely because they are all developed out of the repeated application of an individual brushstroke.
This is what Uslé said about his motivations for making this brushstroke:
I think that I begin these paintings looking for silence. And the mechanism, this form of making them, speaks to me from pure necessity. I feel a necessity to make these paintings, as if it were a ritual, the reciting of a prayer: fusing calm and action, trying not to think, listening to my body. Making them is like filling the world with silence, from the void, in order also to signify at least one sufficiently large, generous space, chosen for that purpose. It’s like a cleansing exercise, to seek emptiness, guided by a biological reference point. Perhaps I make them because we see too impurely, and we are sometimes tormented by images. We are so overloaded with images that we breathe, we live more and more inside a neural Times Square.
I went back to this interview that Uslé and I did five years ago because it occurred to me that the “Soñé que Revelabas” paintings share something with the moodiness of Mark Rothko’s great works of the 1950s as well as with Roman Opalka’s horizontal striations of numbers. Although Uslé belongs to a younger, postmodern generation as opposed to these venerated modernist masters, he too wanted to make what Rothko called a “naked painting,” something basic and irreducible.
Uslé arrived at his “cleansing exercise” through a small, striated brushstroke, which he made by pressing against the canvas as he moved horizontally across the surface, from one side to the other, making row after row. Here is where Opalka comes in. For both Opalka and Uslé, the act of painting becomes a form of meditation. In the wake of Minimalism, Uslé’s ability to make an ongoing series of reductive paintings that do not suffer by comparison with the work of artists such as Brice Marden, Robert Ryman and Frank Stella is something to celebrate. Moreover, for all the moodiness of Uslé’s magentas, grays, blues and blacks, he often finds a way to incorporate or introduce a whimsical or seemingly irrational element into his work.
Here, I wonder if he is not inadvertently criticizing Mark Rothko who seems – at least in the public press – not to have gotten any pleasure out of making his floating clouds of color. The interruptions that are embedded within many of the paintings of “Soñé que Revelabas” underscore that things don’t add up, that contradictions are synonymous with everyday life. On one hand, the surfaces of Uslé’s paintings registers his movement, his heartbeat; they are like electrocardiograms run through with rips and tears. On the other hand, something unpredictable impacts the measured movement of brushstrokes. It might be a change in color from one row to the next, or a tonal shift where one striated brushstroke is darker or lighter than the one preceding it. Meanwhile the light emanating from the brushstrokes is filmic and, at times, crepuscular.
In “Soñé que revelabas (Columbia)” (2015), a red linear element runs from left to right between two lower rows; it does not span the painting’s width. In “Soñé que revelabas (Ganges)” (2016), Uslé divides the painting into three horizontal sections. The upper part is made of magenta brushstrokes, with two narrow blue linear elements lodged between the rows of brushstrokes, like evening light slipping through the crevice. While the lower section is the made of dark gray brushstrokes, the middle section is solid black, divided midway by a severe, vertical white band, which also runs along the bottom of the section, spanning the painting like the lip of a windowsill.
To the left of the vertical white line, Uslé has painted a blue band whose top and bottom edges are angled in. A different colored blue line is abutted against the top edge of the thin, horizontal white line running along the bottom of the solid black section. Together, the white and blue lines dividing the black section hint at dimensionality, making the solid black into an impenetrable space. Is this blackness – at once immediate and unknowable – what the “you” (or the painting) revealed to Uslé in a dream? In the largely blue “Soñé que revelabas (Danubio)” (2016), a white line undulates in from the upper left side of the painting, like a snake or thread. It gives the painting an unexpected jolt, and causes us as well to closely scrutinize the painting.
In two of the modestly scaled paintings – “El jardín cerrado” and “Frío dentro” (both 2016) – Uslé has introduced a new brushtroke. It is a striated fan-like shape, which he repeats in an interlocking pattern across the painting’s surface. The striations evoke the accretions of a seashell, which this brushstroke resembles. Using vinyl, dispersion, and dry pigment, Uslé is able to get a brushstroke that is ghostly, seemingly made of filmic light. Materially speaking, Uslé’s paintings bear no resemblance to Rothko’s or Opalka’s. If everything has been done in painting, as some have claimed, it is apparent to me that not everything has been done with paint.
I become conscious of the individual brushstrokes – feathery striations within a membrane-like presence. I slow down my pace, examine the brushstrokes as if I were a lepidopterist looking at the glowing, powdery wings of a particularly rare specimen. For a few moments, I even forget the world, its constant collisions and bombardments, and return to myself. In a world of distractions, Uslé’s paintings stand out.
Membrana Porosa continues at Cheim and Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 18.