Ben Portis - John Abrams: Medium Close Up, Border Crossings, Issue 113 March 2010

John Abrams   Contempt - Red Couch    2010   18 x 24 inches   oil on panel

   Among several accomplishments registered in John Abrams’s new paintings, he restores to his ostensible subjects—stills selected from the vast provenance of nouvelle vague, art house, New American Cinema, noir, genre and auteur film—uncanny ennui and nondescript homeliness that confronted theatre audiences fifty years or more ago. Long since ensconced and burnished by cineastes, these now classic pictures most often lodge in present-day imagination as reference points to glamour. How wonderful to encounter vaguely familiar scenes of Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy or Lina Wertmuller with the pall of anonymity reapplied, a quality that contributed immensely to their original radical effects. The descriptions that follow name the paintings’ subjects as respective film stars. That is a retrospective convenience. Use of the existential he or she would be more appropriate, however admittedly difficult to follow.


   Anonymity is a basic tendency for Abrams. As a professional artist, he has hewn to a journeyman`s path for over 25 years. A good-natured reticence to articulate, assert or engage interpretations of his work incurred three-fold damage on his career: one, being regarded as talented artist not seeking challenges; two, encumbering his marginal reputation with inflated rationales voiced by supporters; and, three, neglecting valid feedback from others. In 2007 Abrams completed a late-stage MFA, which began to dislodge whatever obstacles lay between visibly making and thinking. Abrams`s exhibition here revealed painting at a high pitch, an artist`s happiness converted to inspiration, competence risen to aplomb. And it witnessed a stubborn intellect emerging through distinct decisions about colour, tone and finish.


   The motif of cinema is so prevalent as to constitute a new generation of monochrome. Abrams’s movie paintings bear hallmarks of hardcore abstraction, drained of vivid luminosity, focus and chromatics, furthermore deflated of narrative. The artist chose not from celluloid film frames but digital video stills; consequently a granular atomization suffuses Abrams’s pictures. Technicolor spectra are reduced to pasty tonal constituents of primary reds, blues and yellows, whose emphasis in any given painting tilts to one or another section of an implicitly turning colour wheel. Minor hues seep from a dominant ground. Film’s temporality is implied through the palette.


   In Descent #4 and #5, consecutive panels of an extended frame-by-frame series after Godard’s Breathless, a claustrophobic stairwell forms in blue brushstroke striations and shading. Abrams handles the doubled setting consistently, although not identically, a sign of observation rather than copying. Down the enveloping gloom comes Jean Seberg, a sylph indicated briefly in pink dress, handbag, head and limbs, echoed by a concentrated red spot, a fire alarm, above the upper landing. Figure #5 emerges slightly larger than #4: right leg proceeds while head glances back upstairs. From the landing appears an incongruous incident, light bursts through three exit windows in intense splashes of white.


   Across the gallery is another two-panel set, after Wertmuller’s Swept Away … by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. Giancarlo Giannini strides upon a yacht deck. What first appears to be a flimsy sarong or towel are the omissions of his pants, vestigial patches of underpainting that become unlikely extensions of the gentle, hazy sea and contrast with his wired posture and expression, the crumpled sailcloth, taut hoists and cables. Abrams finally poured extraneous streams of pure white paint over the picture surfaces, dimming the sun-drenched scenes underneath.


   Abrams amends the film sources delicately and intuitively. His changes are neither discordant nor superfluous. The works that preceded these were stiltedly literal transpositions from screen to paint, down to black letterboxing. Without entirely abandoning that strategy, Abrams modifies its terms. In a painting after Demy’s American movie, Model Shop, close-up hands operate a Rolleiflex camera. An ashy cigarette dangles from the left fingers. White bands at top and bottom, a letterbox in negative, add prurient suggestion to the picture, as if they are wide-apart slats of that ominous archetype, the venetian blind. Two other works after Model Shop, alternate angles of Anouk Aimée driving a white convertible, play on this, although they barely alter the frame. In one, the top edge of the car door creates a lower band. In the other, the dark dashboard and sun visor mimic letterboxing. The paintings seem like different days, almost combating moods. The large side view depicts the street location as a dull blue-grey blur. The small panel looks through the windshield at a radiant Los Angeles sky. Each is flecked by discreet yet enlivening spatters of blue, grey and, predominately, white.


 

   Four excellent, anomalous paintings after Godard’s Contempt showed in the back gallery. Into a living-room, Abrams inserted an abstract wood sculpture—curved, carved, chiselled. It becomes a peculiar doppelgänger trailing Michel Piccoli and simultaneously mediates between naturalistic lens space and expressionist painterly surface. Another inserts Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror in a lavishly spattered bathroom behind a black bewigged Bridget Bardot. My favourite was the most restrained: Piccoli in a black fedora and shirtless, Bardot wrapped in a red blanket, seated beside one another on a red sofa. The whites of the pillow and sheet blend with the wall and floor, the blanket with the upholstery. The couple are a reductive composition of red, yellow and blue, and all too commonly human and estranged in the flesh.