The advent of the shaped canvas proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of 20th century art. It quashed the rectangle’s dominance and subverted the idea of the painting as a window. Suddenly, canvases could be egg-shaped or any irregular polygon that was desired. A few artists, such as the American painters Ron Gorchov (1930-2020) and Otis Jones (b. 1946), even pushed the idea further by making paintings that projected off the wall. In their introductory statement, Foundation CAB notes that the artists reacted to the austerity of 1960s minimalism by injecting a newfound vitality into painting. Their colour charged abstract forms—geometric at times, biomorphic at others—have sustained that verve and continue to offer visual surprises. Now for the first time, their works are being shown together in this unprecedented overview. Here, the well-known saddle-like shapes Gorchov developed in New York are juxtaposed with the robust compositions that in recent years have garnered Jones, the lesser-known Texan artist, increased international exposure.
When I first caught sight of the exhibition, I was taken aback by the rigid segregation of the works. Gorchov’s canvases had been consigned to the left half of the space; Jones’ paintings occupied the right. Though momentarily indecisive about how to proceed, I simply resorted to Fondation CAB’s guide and was directed to start with Gorchov’s compositions.
This group of works, produced between 1974 and 1997, alternated between two styles. While colourful gestural strokes fill some canvases, others are much more minimalist and tend to depict mirrored and awkwardly rendered abstract forms against monochrome backgrounds. Though Gorchov admitted a classical Greek torso originally inspired these shapes, to me they variously suggest malformed ears, kidneys, a pair of loose socks. More interesting are the incongruities that hint at individuality—a feature that, apparently, derives from Gorchov’s ambidextrous way of painting. Contributing an altogether different kind of edginess are the painting supports, which flex away from and toward the wall simultaneously. Some see them as shields or airplane wings, as well as saddles—terms that, in my opinion, fail to capture the supports’ inherent sense of energy. Seeing Gorchov’s work in Brussels, though, did call up an unexpected connection. The flexed canvases reminded me of the organic interplay of contours within the city’s Art Nouveau buildings.
While surveying Gorchov’s works, it became obvious that the plan of segregating his work from Jones’ did not apply to the whole exhibition. The selections in the connected smaller galleries are interspersed. It is also where Gorchov’s most recent works hang. The two acid yellow blobs of ‘Euryvale’ (2016), and buoyant blues and greens of ‘Kitalpha’ (2016) demonstrate that the chromatic intensity of Gorchov’s palette did not fade as he grew older. The columnar ‘Kitalpha’ also curiously recalls Donald Judd’s stacked sculptures. Since Gorchov’s piles of monochrome canvas evolved from the complex freestanding constructions he made in the early 1970s, that visual link may be coincidental.
The exuberance of Gorchov’s compositions contrasts markedly with the compressed solidity of Jones’ forms. In addition to conveying density, weight and stasis, an understated playfulness also suffuses his work. To make them Jones laminates multiple layers of haphazardly cut pieces of plywood together, before topping them with a single layer of canvas and adding images that echo the object’s general form. At times the painted images are awkwardly shaped, applied thickly over a scraped ground, consigned to edges or placed just off the picture plane’s geographic centre. Jones’ compositions are a bit wonky in the most engaging way.
In the ovoid ‘Red with Pink and Black Circle’ (2019), Jones created the small rose circle by scraping down the red ground and adding a fuzzy halo of white paint. As such, the pink form both echoes and stands in contrast to the larger and opaque black circle, with its crisply defined edges. These attributes, combined with the circles’ location at the work’s upper periphery, induce an intriguing and irresolvable visual tension. Determining where the painted image actually ends is also disputable, since Jones secures his canvases with dozens and sometimes hundreds of staples. They have more than just a functional importance. Consider how the crimson in ‘Red with Pink and Black Circle’ (2019) also extends to the sides of the plywood substructure; one could argue that elements once deemed primary and secondary, blend in this work.
The exhibition includes several totem-like painted wood structures that reveal Jones’ early practice. They demonstrate how materials switch roles in works such as ‘Three Day Crow’ (1981) and ‘Rio’ (1981), where Jones not only uses exposed pieces of wood structural elements, but changes their shapes through generous build-ups of paint.
Although Fondation CAB’s segregation of a majority of Gorchov and Jones’ works prompted a modicum of misapprehension at the outset, in retrospect it proved effective. Instead of promoting a showdown of mindsets and methods, this arrangement actually provided a space that enabled viewers to reacquaint themselves with or discover the attributes that characterise each artist’s oeuvre. Despite highlighting obvious differences between the works, shared traits are also revealed. Neither frayed canvas edges, accidental paint drips, adhesive trickles nor other aspects directly linked to the process of creating these works seem to concern these artists. The experience not only stimulates reflection on the current status of painting, but it also prompts re-consideration on painting’s inherent nature, as an image and an object, and as something that relates to both the wall on which and the space in which it hangs. I do not think Gorchov and Jones’ works engender indifference in the viewer toward painting, but exist to challenge our understanding of the medium.