A paladin of New York painting since the 1980s, Ross Bleckner has influenced countless younger artists with his works’ unimpeachable painterly chops, mournful sentimentality and imagery of pictorial space both vast and ethereal. One of these artists—as this handsome exhibition on the two floors of the University of Saskatchewan’s College Art Galleries was designed to demonstrate—Regina-based draftsman Zachari Logan, shares thematic interests with Bleckner, as well as his sense of romantic melancholy. Organized by the Galleries’ curator Leah Taylor with Wayne Baerwaldt, currently an independent curator based in rural Saskatchewan, the show offered examples of several of Bleckner’s aesthetic modes, which range from the abstractly representational to the representationally abstract. A 2018 four-foot-square canvas, Untitled, pictures pale flowers floating in a glimmering silvery green field; blurred out with a dry brush, the image suggests late Monet essayed by early Richter, except that instead of tapping into the nostalgic veracity of old photographs, Bleckner’s painting conjures a fey dream. Yet, a non-representational painting the same size appears the near double of Untitled. The dark ground of Crowd, 2016, features a number of soft-focus splotches that seem to glow from its depths, the points of light approximating the unmoored flowers and vice versa.
Ross Bleckner and Zachari Logan, “The New York Obituaries,” collaborative series, 2017, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the artists and Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.
Mysterious and yearning works such as these have long been seen as expressive, not just of Bleckner’s excess of feeling, but as emotionally specific memorializations of those lost to AIDS, particularly during the crisis years of the 1980s and ’90s. The flowers refer to grief in an obvious way; the luminescent phenomena in Crowd, perhaps, to the sparks of individual souls no longer embodied and, in a buried caustic irony, to the “thousand points of light” of George HW Bush, who presided over some 70,000 deaths from AIDS. Bleckner has delivered thematically and tonally similar results through a variety of images. A large untitled work from 2010 on four panels shows a multicoloured morass of brushy flowers, leaves and stems against sooty black. The whole looks oddly flat, and white haloes the blooms as if a bouquet had been run through a printing press and then solarized, like a photograph. Chains Fold into Several Domains, 2016, a blobby abstraction in black, white and grey with blood red and a buzzy ultramarine, resembles a blown-up microscopic view of cells, probably malignant ones, making the connection between Bleckner’s practice and the beleaguered body fairly overt. And in Mausoleum, 2016, a grid of spectral white lines on black, with bright spots at the interstices that flicker and pulsate, frames a vertical rectangle filled with loosely daubed flowers. Here, in an explicitly funereal context, the artist marries his floral theme to abstraction that directly implicates the body, in this case, by the retinal stimulation of the black and white grid. Like that of his colleague, Philip Taaffe, in the neo-geo moment in the 1980s, Bleckner’s appropriation of tropes of op art to express absence and loss has always seemed counterintuitive, to say the least, unless, perhaps, we allow that the visceral and dizzying sensations produced might actually approximate feelings of grief.
Ross Bleckner, Dome, 2016, oil on linen, 84 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Logan also points to mourning in his work, but, in place of Bleckner’s play with abstraction, he opts for an over-the-top naturalism. Wreath I, 2016, a large square pastel on black paper, envisions the traditional funeral accessory, but composed almost entirely of an assortment of foliage rather than blooms. Painstakingly limned in a myriad of greens with a verisimilitude that implies a kind of scientific accuracy, the variety of intertwined species in Logan’s wreath hints at a fecundity that assuages deathly connotations with new growth. Yet, the work’s pendant from the same year, Wreath (Silhouette), a black-on-black drawing, makes the wreath’s commemorative function into an emblem of actual absence: only a shadow or an afterimage remains.
The exhibition’s curators have addressed a potential imbalance in pairing a senior statesman of the art world with a younger artist by skewing it in Logan’s favour. In addition to wall-bound works by each, Logan is represented by a mostly unpainted clay sculpture of flowers (Fountain 1, 2013); a 33-foot-long dark drawing on sewn-together sheets of black paper that cascades tapestry-like down from high on a wall and across the floor, progressing from individual falling sprigs to dense ground cover; and by an entire dimly lit room hung with two huge works from the “Eunuch Tapestry” series. The four panels of Eunuch Tapestry 1, panel 1, 2012, more than 6 x 12 feet overall, picture thick vegetation in a garden or a forest, a symphony of dark greens and earthy browns punctuated by a few flowers, birds and butterflies. Only slowly do we become aware that the stony form on the first and second panels is actually the figure of a man crouching among the plants, his bearded face half obscured, intently cultivating something on the ground or burying something in it. He actually looks like the artist, and while the lushness of the camouflaging verdure might suggest life and the solace of nature, the greenery literally engulfs the man, subsumes him, and his proximity to the soil intimates a connection with death and interment. The labour-intensive depiction of the male body in close association with a thriving if unsublime nature seems an act of remembrance against the inevitable and imminent vanishing of both.
Zachari Logan, Dead Flowers , from “Pool” series, 2018, pastel on black paper, 59 x 60 inches. Courtesy of a Private Collection, New York.
Logan’s meticulous attention to the exactitude and detail of plant life, real or emblematic, clearly nods to the Pre-Raphaelites. A Victorian sensibility towards nature, towards sentimentality and towards mourning pervades his work in the exhibition, lending a slightly mawkish, if nonetheless ultimately affecting, air. Bleckner, too, traffics in 19th-century imagery of transcendent feeling in the face of mortality. This is evidenced in works such as three small 2017 canvases of ghostly fluttering birds, or Dome, 2016, a stately and sombre knockout of concentric black and purple curving stripes that recalls mourning bunting as it describes a soaring and dramatically illuminated vault, related to his series, ongoing since the 1980s and poetically titled Architecture of the Sky. Rather than the Pre-Raphaelites, however, Bleckner’s touchstone might be the symbolists of the fin de siècle. The compelling orchestration of the two artists’ works in “The Shadow of the Sun” swells to a sustained fugue of beauty, longing and loss.
If there is a disappointment, it is that the few collaborative works on view do not live up to the masterful accomplishments of either artist on his own. Two pages of obituaries from the New York Times, blocked out and overlaid with Logan’s floral silhouettes, or a smudgy aquatint of leaves by Bleckner with delicate extensions beyond the edge of the plate in blue pencil by Logan, comprise lovely, sensitive gestures by a pair of artists with many shared interests. But they come across as an unfortunately slight coda to the intensity of purpose and clarity of feeling elsewhere.
“The Shadow of the Sun: Ross Bleckner and Zachari Logan” was exhibited at the College Art Galleries, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, from October 5 to December 15, 2018.
Joseph R Wolin is a curator and critic in New York whose writing has appeared in Time Out New York, Glasstire and Garage Magazine, among other publications. He was recently the co-curator of “Living Together,” a year-long series of performance art, exhibitions, concerts, readings, lectures, workshops and film screenings at various locations in Miami in 2018, organized by the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College.