Since the 1960s when it was pronounced dead by the Minimalists, painting has had several resurrections, most conspicuously in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. For the past 20 years or so painting has thrived by incorporating the discourses, critical dialogues and histories of conceptualism. Currently every major museum seems to be preparing or presenting a major painting show and that doyen of art trends Charles Saatchi has recently opened a big new show in London called, somewhat unambiguously, The Triumph of Painting. At the vanguard of any painting revival is abstraction which seems to have maintained its radicality even a century after Kandinsky’s first non-objective, expressionist compositions.
I’m excited about the recent work of Don Andrus because I think it participates in the current dialogues around painting in general and abstraction in particular. On a recent visit to his studio I saw two bodies of related work. The first was a series of small paintings that are distinctly un-heroic in scale, roughly a foot square. Each of the works in this series is titled sequentially from 1 to 205. A layer of dazzling and complex marks sits on the rich ground of these paintings. Covering the surface is a coat of high gloss resin that reflects lights, the room and ultimately the viewer.
The second series of works entitled Field are much larger, about four feet high and slightly less than that wide. Here again the ground of the paintings is richly coloured, it is made from a mixture of glue, plaster and powered pigment appearing like a leisurely troweled-on fresco. On these works the small marks, painstakingly applied with a gel pen, float over the ground. This is accomplished by sandwiching the marks between two layers of the clear resin. The effect is both mysterious and uncanny. The small gel pen marks, deliberately applied, seem to spell out some hidden message in Morse code. They flow rhythmically over the painting folding, turning and transforming. The glistening water-like surface gives the work a shiny appearance, interrupted when you notice the uneven irregularities which sometimes show up. My feeling is that Andrus takes pleasure in these apparent defects, in the mistakes that look good. The mixing of traditional and unconventional materials and techniques reflects Andrus’ questioning of the historical inevitably of the modernist/formalist development of abstraction.
Andrus finds room for the Greenbergian formalist abstraction discourse strictly within an historical context. He is much more at home with contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter whose work bridges conceptualism and painting. Like many painters today Andrus refuses to place his work in the debate between different critical methodologies or even abstraction vs. representation arguments.
I think what really excites Don Andrus is making work that is both intelligent and accessible. The paintings are clearly informed by the artist’s four decade long history in academe. They are smart, located in current critical theory and reference art history. But importantly for Andrus, and for me, is that they also seduce. As beautiful objects, it is this quality that offers the viewer an entry point through which to experience the work further. The vivid colours, shimmering surface and organic rhythms in the work are meant to appeal to the senses as much as the mind.
These works straddle gaps between the traditional and the contemporary, abstract expressionism and conceptualism, the theoretical and the sublime. By intentionally switching between these questions Andrus creates a largely unstable but expansively open field for his art