Tuesday, 11 March 2008



A distinctive technique, attractive colour sense and often surprising compositions continue to draw admirers to the abstract paintings of Juan Uslé. This confirmed by both his current show at Cheim and Read, NY (ending 15th March) and recent survey at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Malaga. The work is so easy on the eye the artist is equally celebrated and censured for flaunted facility. Unfortunately the web offers too few examples of the artist’s early work to trace the development of his style. But since his work displays remarkable consistency over the past 18 years at least, this post looks instead at where Uslé fits in with abstraction currently, at why his work should draw this divided response.

The course of recent abstraction has been touched upon in earlier Posts (see 32, 10 and 14), as has the drift to lesser levels of abstraction (see Posts 24, 53 and 57). Here the interest is in how the formal elements allowed by Minimalism, or full abstraction, are teased into further variety. For, even to sustain the principles of Minimalism is to cautiously increase the options, to concede new variations and steadily ‘maximise’ formal elements. The strictest ordering or pattern soon paves the way for more relaxed, complex or elusive versions; for pattern detected across preceding patterns, along successive elements. By the 80s, traditional Pattern and Decoration have been assimilated, are extended by novel materials and technique or else compounded in more elusive relations between motifs.

If there is a single influence or relevant comparison for Uslé in New York (where he moves in 1987) it is probably the work of Jonathan Lasker, a pivotal figure for his dedication to just these relations. Lasker similarly favours linear formulations, overlapping motifs and often intriguing technique (and now also shows with Cheim and Read). However, for Lasker relations between parts are not just a deft play on the diversity of line, its role in shape and colour. They shrewdly make multiple connections from one kind of line or shape to others. The pattern may be diffuse, but the threads are fine and many. With Uslé, the diversity of parts, never quite display this complexity. At times he can seem very like Lasker, in the schematic arrangement of motifs and linear engineering, but the variation lacks the resonance and ingenuity of a Lasker. They are too diverse, in too few ways.

At other times Uslé’s lines or brushstrokes broach more figurative or stylised depiction, but these are rarely pressed or sustained. Then again when Uslé reins in the whimsical variation, retreats to just stripes or segments thereof, for example, the variation can seem not enough, too tame or traditional. Greater emphasis then falls upon the artist’s distinctive technique, in which a diluted or dispersed pigment is variously dragged or raked across the canvas, delivering a curious texture or distribution to colour, a somewhat mechanical feel to line, not unlike the work of Bernard Frize. Colour duly acquires a translucence or thinness that recalls fine fabrics, a sheer coating that inspires clothing, after a fashion. These are perhaps the artist’s most frank expressions of attitude. Line is more patterned for the unusual tool, but the patterns severely constrained, or again, combined with so much else that the effect is no more than mannerism.

Yet it is surely the lightness and directness to Uslé’s compositions that given them much of their appeal. If the price to be paid for that is a looseness to structure, an excess of variation, the reward is in some part surprise and insouciance. Critics have found his work dominated by technique and elegance, superficial or showy but this may be to mistake content for form. Are differences with Lasker simply differences in character or attitude? Put another way, is the artist entitled to a more diffuse structure for the greater emphasis on technique? There are other standards available. Unfortunately Uslé falls short of precedent and peers there as well. To compare Uslé with Albert Oehlen or Fiona Rae, for example, shows how much further diversity of technique may be carried, how cautious Uslé looks by comparison. Equally, to compare the work with more concrete diagram or chart, such as some works by Jules de Balincourt or Thomas Scheibitz reveals Uslé’s reluctance or indifference in that direction.

On one scale he is too reckless; on another not bold enough, on another too aloof. To see him as a compromise, or the best of all three, is to place a premium on moderation. Uslé stakes out a territory clearly enough, but it is for those who have little at stake.

1 comment:

CAP said...

I've just finished a stack of repairs to links in old posts, since Blogspot saw fit to revise the urls on older posts, without telling me.

Everytime I've placed a link to such a post in subsequent posts, as well as in my list of posts on the left, obviously then needs to be updated as well.

I've no idea why now, although I've noted inconsistencies in the file paths to the first 7 or 8 posts. But still, they could have at least told me.