Distance Looks Our Way: Ten Artists from New Zealand (1992).
How can I explain my enthusiasm for James Ross’s works when all the terms I would use to describe them sound so negative? To me, his works are characterised by restraint and fatigue, exhaustion and debilitation. They can be academic, awkward, banal, kitsch, laboured, morbid, overblown, portentous, pretentious, and staid—but always wilfully so. The artist seems to favour impurity, complexity, and difficulty over the traditional artistic virtues of essence, simplicity, and clarity. How did vices become the virtues of his work?
Ross’s monochromes from the early 1980s are simple enough. Their irregular shape suggests a rectangle in perspective, a three-dimensional space. This ‘interior’ is invariably inhabited by a single vague form, distended and phallic, slightly darker than its surroundings, confronting or mirroring the viewer; an upright, faceless, armless, legless shadow or spook, as large as life but hardly life-like. Ross’s theme is a classic: ‘the figure in space’. And, in an appropriately academic manner, he reworks his motif in different colours. Titles like Yellow—Myth, Flesh—Elegy, and Red—Totem (all 1982) make grand claims, suggesting there’s more to the variants than meets the eye. It’s hard to tell if they should be read as exercise or exorcism.
For some reason, Ross offered these works as expressions of a transcendental quest, the search for an integrated self: ‘My response to painting has to be open, calm, individual, and meditative.’ He was focused on ‘an archetypal, totemic end’, ‘spiritual identity’, ‘the singular within the multiple’, ‘the part within the whole’. Yet, the works fall short of being meditative—they’re too creepy. The figure could be a reflection of ourselves or a threat, or both. In his subsequent works, Ross’s ambivalence to the project of transcendence becomes more and more patent. He increasingly courts a strained, self-conscious, and grating novelty, initially under the guise of authentic expressionism.
Works like Alembic (The Sea) (1985), Pool (New Myth) (1985), and Echo (On a Bridge) (1986) are neither abstract nor figurative. They are mongrel. The elaborate supports are made of plywood shapes inlaid or grafted into one another. The forms are not simply painted onto the supports, the supports themselves already delineate the forms, so there is a play between the literal and the represented. If that wasn’t enough, sometimes Ross cuts through the plywood surface to reveal the battens that support it—the armature of the painting—even the wall beyond. These cuts suggest wounds, orifices, or vortexes. They can also suggest forms—their absences read as presences.
As for the painting, the ‘backgrounds’ are dabbed or dribbly, like murky bogs, bloody sumps, ocean, or pools. The ‘figures’ are no longer ghostly, but palpable. Biomorphic, they suggest severed limbs, foreshortened heads, body organs, all manner of genitalia. These debauched entities are faceless, soft, pudgy, and repellant, like slugs or maggots, caressing or greasing up to one another, comparing notes. Premature, they lack the distinguishing marks to grant them a clearer identity.
These shapeless sacs are, in the words of George Bataille, informe (formless). Bataille promoted the formless as subversive, a threat to the system of names, categories, definitions, the ‘mathematical frock coats’ that organise the world, making it sensible and reassuring, making us feel at home. Ross’s forms suggest the horrid, the abject—the grossness that threatens our comfort and nags the borders of the self. As if to rub our noses in it, Ross takes us for a dip in the plasma pool.
In the last few years, Ross has rejected expressionist spatter and intimations of the fleshy in favour of geometry rendered deadpan. The new works are in a classically modernist manner, Ross echoing a style that was modern more than forty years ago, now stale. Often these abstracts are haunted by an incongruous element: an anamorphic skull lifted from Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous painting The Ambassadors (1553).
The use of skulls to symbolise death date from medieval times. In vanitas still-lifes, the skull is a reminder of the transience of life on earth and the futility of worldly things. In Holbein’s painting, the skull appears to hail from an different dimension, threatening the decorum and logic of the painting, cracking the unity of an otherwise classic space, mocking the achievements of the two gentlemen, rearranging their world, offering a different point of view.
Repeated in Ross’s paintings, this foreign body has a similar task. Its figuration and allegory again disrupt an alien order, this time one typical of a certain brand of modern abstraction. The effect is to suggest that the modernists’ search for purity and transcendence was, in truth, vain, deadly. And certain modern paintings are less gateways to the infinite than commodities, encumbrances, lead boots. Ross offers contemporary momenti mori.
In Holbein’s time, the skull was something dreadful. Now it is debased, a bit of kitsch, a mere signifier, something for dopey gang patches and covers of heavy-metal records. Likewise, Holbein’s skull has become a fait accompli, an art historical standard, a textbook case, an illustration weary from reproduction. It could be argued that, by reprising it endlessly, Ross further drains the skull of meaning and threat, further debases its currency. And yet, such exhaustion might also enhance its meaning—making it a deadly cliché, hollow but resonant.
Some of these paintings are crucifix-shaped. The cross is a symbol of resurrection, transcendence, victory over death. But such optimism is corrupted by the skull—a reminder that death can be fatal. Other paintings are letter-shaped, based on the T-shaped (tau cross) forms used in the paintings of New Zealand’s own Colin McCahon. In Comet (for C McC) (1987), the Holbein skull haunts the blue interior of a McCahon ‘I’—death imposed upon the self. Comet can be read as developing McCahon’s existential dilemmas (McCahon did a series of comet works). But, more interesting is that Ross is attracted to the cross, to McCahon’s forms, to the Holbein skull, and so on, not as going concerns but as readymades, givens, absolutes, truisms.
Sometimes, Ross does Holbein’s skull clearly; other times, he effaces it, smears it, leaves it as a mere stain or a trace. So, the skull can be precise and lucid, or vague and ghostly. Sometimes, it hovers over pools or flies through the cosmos. The degree of anamorphic distortion differs from work to work, as if the skull was being put under different kinds of pressure in different situations. The skull can be accompanied by ideal forms; in one collage it meets an article from the newspaper. Ironically, the repetition of the skull through so many variations, so many situations, gives it a kind of life, a history. Ross gives the skull a life outside Holbein’s original.
I can’t help but read Ross’s skull as the nemesis of the star gate in Stanley Kubrick’s ultimately kitsch 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s monolith is modern, a minimalist sculpture, floating through the cosmos, turning up inexplicably here and there, assisting evolution. Wise, it is a gate through which death offers promotion to a higher plane. Ross’s skull, on the other hand, is antique and dumb. Gliding through space, it reminds us of a more deadly death. For Ross, it is not the ideal that persists, but the gothic.
[IMAGE: James Ross Alembic (The Sea) 1985]