John Mendelsohn: Dark Color Wheel Paintings
David Richard Gallery
December 6, 2022 through January 6, 2023
By MARIO NAVES, January 2023
In a recent interview, John Mendelsohn referred to the art of painting as "a radical act."
What's breathtaking about this opinion is how casually it was stated. Mendelsohn, among the most soft spoken of men, wasn't making any sort of pronunciamento, nor was he daring us to knock a chip off his shoulder. Rather, he stated a point of fact, as if the radicalism of painting was a given--like the air we breathe, say, or the pull of gravity.
Surely an art form that dates back 45-millennia has lost its claim on radicalism. The tools of painting--a stick topped off with a bundle of hair, pigmented mud and a flat surface on which to apply it--are beyond rudimentary, offering little in the way of the backlit gee-wizardry typical of our digital age. Given all that, what can Mendelsohn be talking about?
"Dark Color Wheel Paintings," Mendelsohn's recent exhibition at David Richard Gallery, provided an instructive environment to look for clues.
Might consistency be the answer? The twelve paintings on display were uniform in formatting: each canvas measured 40 x 27" and was situated vertically--that is to say, "portrait" mode. Mendelsohn's shape vocabulary is equally regulated: he uses circles and only circles, all measuring roughly twelve inches in diameter. Here is a painter who's set strictures for himself.
Then again, limitations can allow for the means to achieve artistic liberty, for bringing a fluidity of purpose to process, color and sensation. As the exhibition title makes plain, the painter's color wheel--the bane of art students the world over--is a reference point, but it is by no means the final destination. The colors adorning Mendelsohn's wheels don't follow a prescribed order and are only intermittently saturated. Though the primaries are in evidence, Mendelsohn's palette favors muted pastoral tones and, here and there, colors that are silvery and sharp.
Mendelsohn makes studies on paper before committing brush to canvas; still, the paintings retain a free-floating, improvisatory character. His circles expand beyond the parameters of the picture plane, yet they do so just barely. This clustering makes for a subtle pressurization--as if Mendelsohn's forms were cognizant of our gaze and gathering for our delectation. Or are they gathering to look at us? This aspect is accentuated by their nearness to the canvas surface. A surprisingly uncanny tête-à-tête is generated between the viewer and the artwork.
Illusionism filters into Mendelsohn's work. Gradations of color and value spread around the circumference of each circle and radiate from its center. The "point" anchoring each form creates a gently sloping cone, somewhat like an umbrella seen from above. Nosing up to the canvas, we see how this is accomplished: the artist's hand has pulled thinned acrylics in a centrifugal direction. Viewers will, of necessity, move back-and-forth to appreciate how adroitly Mendelsohn navigates the physical exigencies of the surface with the kaleidoscopic atmosphere that is subsequently set into motion.
A gentle strain of irony filters through the pictures. A dab hand at color, Mendelsohn proves peculiarly adept at black and white--tones that aren't found on the color wheel. Dark Color Wheel 12 (2022) is particularly impressive, shuttling, as it does, between crisply defined steely grays, milky whites and velvety blacks. The overall effect is hard-as-nails, but also evanescent, an unlikely embodiment of (to quote the artist) an "unstable mixture of melancholy and brightness--a sense of inevitable waning consorting with beauty that is a fugitive, saving grace."
In the end, radicalism may be less a coefficient of newness than a confirmation that there are basic human tenets--humane tenets, actually--that are in constant need of affirmation. In that regard, Mendehlson's paintings are a welcome avowal of imagination, optimism and forward momentum. WM