John Moore at Hirschl & Adler

John Moore, Crystal (2004), oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″; courtesy Hirschl & Adler Gallery

When a major gallery feels it necessary to stress the role of the eye in experiencing art, it shows how far we’ve come, or (depending on how you look at it) how deep we’ve sunk. Hirschl & Adler Modern tells us in a press release that “[p]ainting, for John Moore, is as much about the act of looking—and seeing—as it is about the process of creating a work of art.”

The conceptualist aesthetic has engulfed the cultural landscape like an overeducated blob, blurring the fundamental truth that visual art is, you know, visual. Thinking about art and all the issues that surround it is considered more advanced and intellectually rigorous than looking at the stuff. It’s as if the eye were somehow separate from the brain (a fallacy the critic Karen Wilkin has noted).

The gist of Mr. Moore’s paintings is understated and unmistakable: Perception can be a complicated and challenging process. He reminds us, with cleverness and consummate skill, that how we look can be affected bywhere we look. A painting’s vantage point—usually a straight-on, picture-window view—is often taken for granted. Mr. Moore’s scenarios are mostly (though not exclusively) seen from above, as if the viewer were hovering off the ground or standing on a ladder.

Some of his images are interiors filled with long tables, chairs left askew, flowers and untidy reminders of recent meals: dirty dishes, crumbs, spills and bottle caps. Other pictures glimpse the city, sometimes from a relatively direct angle, but more often through a window on a high floor. Windows—transparent objects that inherently encourage looking—are a recurring motif.

Despite visible traces of human activity, all but one of the images are unpeopled. In the notable exception, Update (2006-07), we look through a suite of windows at a woman in the distance. She sits by her own window appearing pensive and distracted. We gaze at her from within a well-appointed apartment. The doubled, reflected image of a television newscaster—a sliver of the actual television screen is shown at the bottom left edge of the canvas—shines off an arched window. A deadpan voyeurism marks the scene.

Mr. Moore makes us a protagonist whose role is unknown. Rear Windowis the obvious antecedent to Update: The painting’s effect, while not as ominous as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, is unnerving—even more so because the apartment from which we view the nighttime panorama feels strangely independent of us. The painting insists on our being present even as it implies our absence. Just where do we stand exactly? Mr. Moore’s not telling—he offers riddles rather than logic.

Hitchcock directed his actors to follow the movement of the camera; its primacy was not to be questioned. Mr. Moore does something similar: The picture frame is inviolate. Objects such as the coiling chandelier inIncomplete Plan (2005) or the aloe plant in Southeast in the Morning(2006) are situated in the composition with menacing precision. Suggestion is Mr. Moore’s forte—or part of it, anyway. At his best, he’s as dexterously manipulative as a movie by the master of suspense himself.

And his images evince a similarly immaculate orchestration. From the window hanging ajar to the open book to the bright, almost blinding light emanating from the windows across the way, there’s not a wasted moment in Update. Mr. Moore’s tour de force shares with his other paintings a quietude devoid of calm. To call the work Realist would be to misread Mr. Moore’s aims. An otherworldly portent invades these stringent and concise pictures—not Surrealism exactly, but something related to it.

 An uncommonly gifted paint-handler, Mr. Moore is exacting when detailing observed phenomenon. The streamlined array of Post-Its inTheater District (2006), stuck on the wall and reflected in the window, is a remarkable painterly feat. The same is true for the cityscape glimpsed through the slats of a Venetian blind in Ten Days (2006-7). Other examples abound, yet Mr. Moore remains the least flashy of artists. A painter friend observed that any artist with enough chops to show off should have the decency not to. Mr. Moore is as decent as they come.

He pays thorough attention to how things look but avoids trompe l’oeilillusions. Mr. Moore’s touch is regulated and blunt, and is spread evenly over the paintings’ surfaces. The insistent—at times overly insistent—brushwork emphasizes flatness and remove. The selective use of photography probably accounts for some of the work’s disassociated feel: Attuned as much to abstraction as to representation, Mr. Moore yields to neither. The paintings are uncompromisingly impersonal; nothing slackens their tautness.

Mr. Moore tips his hand in a series of small still lifes in which vision succumbs to contrivance. The arrangements of index cards strewn about, a purple glove and stray pieces of silverware are too self-consciously staged. Their bird’s-eye viewpoint becomes blandly didactic, speaking down to rather than engaging the viewer.

Bigger formats ask more from the artist. Certainly, Mr. Moore brings greater pictorial invention to them. In doing so, he embraces the mysteries they suggest while trusting the relentless eye that sets them in motion. The surer an individual composition is, the more enigmatic its pictorial and narrative tangents—an absorbing paradox. These are perplexing paintings, stoic in temper and ambitious almost against their inclinations.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 15, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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