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April 27 - June 16, 2001 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by John O'Brien

Ed Moses, “Tote”, a/c, 96 x 120”
(overall, diptych), 2001

Ed Moses, “Toymom,” a/c,
66 x 104” (overall, diptych), 2000.

The work of artists and friends Ed Moses and John Chamberlain, both major figures from the generation of heroic abstractionists, is without a doubt so familiar to most readers as to preclude any need to describe them. What can be said which won't seem too little or too much? On one hand, we have really big gestures of colored marks sculpted into the space of a canvas field and, on the other, really large colored glyphs of manipulated and crumpled automobile metal splashed into space. That would get the descriptive task accomplished. However, this well intentioned exercise in ellipsis doesn't articulate the reasons we keep looking at these guys. Nor does it quite get at the reasons we continue to enjoy looking at them either. What is it about their 'repetition of the same' that continues to compel our gaze and win over our desire?

Chamberlain and Moses, like other large figures from their milieu, have been plumbing what we might call a fountain of youth at the base of modern formalism: it is their kinetic response and muscular intuition to the limits set by formal art investigations. They have each charted again and again the length and depths of their chosen field. They have made rules, broken rules, set new rules and ignored them whenever poetically feasible. They have done so with panache and even daring, choosing from among their enormous output only the best work to bring into the public eye. They have both overcome the limits of formalism by shear force of will and strength.

The paintings and sculptures, which evidence this battle between the inert matter and the willful creative impulse, proclaim the pleasure of this pursuit to the empathetic viewer.

Both Moses and Chamberlain share a proclivity for living and working near the ocean. Their studios, their past work experiences, their sense of returning to the same and finding something new in it--all are linked to their proximity to a large body of water ebbing and returning to the same shore under their protracted gaze. I imagine these friends arguing about what Ahab really wanted from Moby, the Great White Whale, as he pursued it unto his death. Perhaps they identify with that kind of journey? Do they share in the sense of hubris that Ahab conjures up for some? Their work mutually speaks of the victory not the vanquished: the clamor of car crashes that spawn the raw material with which Chamberlain works is generally glossed over; the mind wrenching psychedelic edge in Moses' paint generally understated. Conquering Utopia has its cost, but once its shores have been reached, the accounting stops, the clock starts from zero all over again. Part of our relief when a formal art work accomplishes the thing it does well (in studio jargon, they just say it "works") is that it pulls us back from the nothing which was there before it existed. Borne out of nothing but desire, abstraction saves us from the null. I suspect beauty is linked to this sense of salvation. Imminent demise is momentarily forestalled by poetic invention: this appeals to my idea of a vital visual culture.

You notice I keep talking circles around their work--just what the best formal work is wont to make you do. Probably the best thing for you to do is go and see for yourself what I'm trying to get at. Don't forget to ask yourself what you see in the colored mirror on the wall/on the floor/in front of you. I suggest it might be yourself. It depends on how much you want to keep looking.

John Chamberlain, “Moist of Edgeness,”
painted and chromium plated steel,
43 1/2 x 38 1/2 x 28 3/4”, 2000.
Photo: Ellen Page Wilson.

John Chamberlain, “The Big One”,
painted and chromium plated steel,
43 1/2 x 45 1/4 x 32 3/4”, 2000.
Photo: Ellen Page Wilson.

John Chamberlain, “Lovenest Over the
Body Shop”, painted and chromium
plated steel, 83 x 37 x 48”, 1992.
Photo: Ellen Page Wilson.