Ross Bleckner at Mary Boone

Ross Bleckner at Mary Boone
Art in America
May, 2008

Ross Bleckner's restless, slightly sinister flower-based paintings—there were six, from 2006-07, in this exhibition—comprise some of his strongest work yet. While the predominating color is red, this is not the red of roses and valentines, but of something far more visceral, like blood. Petal and leaf shapes swirl around a pistil-like center as if in a whirlpool, darting in a chaotic pattern that, rather than being contained by the edges of the canvas, alludes to an infinity outside the picture plane. The sensual beauty of the red flowers is offset by the ominous charcoal gray shadows—almost like burn marks—that lurk behind them. The effect is as alluring as it is menacing; you feel you could fall in and be consumed. Given the artist's advocacy work in the fight against AIDS and his earlier works dedicated to those who have died from the disease, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that these images are meant to evoke both the irresistible lure and the potentially deadly threat of sex.

In Meditation for H.M. (Ruins Proclaim the Building), realistically rendered multicolored blossoms are intertwined with—or perhaps being devoured by—more stylized red ones. These are not fresh flowers, but faded beauties just past their prime, and you can almost smell the heavy perfume of their decay. Using the life cycle of the flower as a metaphor for that of human birth and death is hardly new, yet Bleckner manages to give it contemporary relevance; here the painting's cement-gray background and allover decorative motif keep it from going over the top.

The more Bleckner simplifies his subject matter and limits his palette, the more powerful his images become, especially when he applies stark, unmediated red and black, the colors of Soviet communism and anarchy, respectively, to the soft and unlikely subject of flowers. In Meditation (The Narcissism of Small Differences), mirror images of flower and shadow, much like a Rorschach blot, hang suspended over a glowing white center. The lack of light in Meditation (Pro-Interpretation) makes it almost claustrophobic, and here the tangled red tendrils are more fuzzy and wild, forming a dense pattern of abstract leaf-like elements that, like microbes under a microscope, teem in seemingly random courses; looking at it, the eye is never at rest.

Sometimes, when Bleckner has veered in other directions, such as distancing himself with the hard-edged Cell paintings of eight or so years ago, it has seemed that he was afraid of his metaphysical side, of creating paintings that could be seen as overly romantic. If so, he needn't have worried. These are flowers, yes, with all the beauty the subject matter implies, but also fierce, energetic paintings that dig deep into the emotions.

-Carol Diehl