Gerard Mossé at Jill Newhouse Gallery

by Jonathan Goodman

Paper painting F9

Gerard Mossé. Vellum Painting F9. 2015-2016. Oil on Vellum mounted on Matte Board.  17″ x 13″. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Gerard Mossé is a mature painter who has spent nearly thirty years in New York City, maintaining his studio in Tribeca. As noted critic David Ebony says in the catalogue introduction, Mossé’s paintings are primarily about light, in the form of sentinels or monuments. Light is a difficult subject to deal with in visual art—it is really about itself; as a theme, it is directed toward the appreciation of a spirituality that does not necessarily associate itself with a particular religious orthodoxy or outlook.

Mossé’s viewers immediately recognize the transcendent import of his theme; his paintings can be likened in intent if not in manner to the great art of Mark Rothko, whose luminous works suggest an intensity of feeling and a mystical drive toward the ineffable, which intimates and presupposes a sacred world. As viewers, we can acknowledge such a site, but find it very hard to talk about or visualize. What Mossé has done is to present the spirit as something real, as something we can see. This is an exercise that is very old in time; but it is also a vision that belongs to the New York School and its slightly eccentric yet highly moving visions of celestial matters.

Still, it seems to me that Mossé’s primary focus is in the direction of the ethereal. Indeed, one thinks of Rothko’s non-denominational chapel in Houston. There, the abstractions sit in service to divinity. Mossé’s effect, if not his stated approach, is more or less the same. It is a presentation of what is usually considered invisible. At the same time, it looks to recent art history, in which the unspoken presence experienced often in abstraction was used not only for artistic purposes, but also for an insight to the interior life of people.

To do this in the broadest terms is to employ the metaphor of light, which suggests the god-like in all its splendor without referring to a specific presence. We reserve the right to use metaphor when the theme is not something that can actually be seen. Mossé’s achievement is to build a series around a symbol, and to do so when no actual image will suffice. It is an unusual, even a remarkable, accomplishment, because it convinces the spectator of its authenticity through presence alone. As powerful as this achievement is, however, we must not turn our backs on the visual precedents of the middle to late twentieth century, especially those brought about in New York. One cannot simply embrace venerable notions of the spiritual without finding new ways of presenting it.

“Paper Painting F9,” (2015-16) like most of Mossé’s pieces in this exhibition, is a work in oil on vellum mounted on board. It emblematizes his predilection for the colorful, charismatic presentation of light. Structurally, the picture conforms to a basic scheme: a bar of white light surrounded by a yellow aura, placed horizontally in the higher half of the composition. Above and below it is a vertically aligned bar, that moves in hue from a darkish red to a deep brown bordering on black. 

This abstract image is placed in the middle of the painting, with a greenish gray background surrounding it. As I have noted, the image might be a sentinel, or a tower, or a monument to God. Viewers are free to make their own associations; abstraction especially lends itself to visual speculation, although in Mossé’s case, it appears to be clearly tied to mysterious, luminous presence. Taken singly, the painting shows us that a striking phenomenon can be made through the appearance of light and hue alone, but just as important, it becomes clear that this tower emanates strength in the most exceptional manner, one free of human attributes.

Paper painting E9

Gerard Mossé. Vellum Painting E9. 2010-2016. Oil on vellum mounted on Matte Board. 24″ x 18″. Image courtesy of the Artist.

In “Paper Painting E9” (2010-16), Mossé has rendered a small crowd of sentinels, each conveying a differently colored luminosity. Three of the columns in the front stand out; one tower displays a band of yellow against red on the left; on the right we see a yellow band nearly eclipsed by red and next to it the white band surrounded by yellow experienced in the piece described above. Behind them are several thinner columns in gray, whose bands of light consist of pastel colors: pink and light blue and mauve.

Taken collectively, these might be spirits standing in array as they attempt to communicate their flickering life. This is of course a speculation, but a necessary one, needed to make full sense of the painting. Mossé’s titles give us no help in that they merely describe the paper material. So we are encouraged—indeed, we are forced—to try to make good sense of a body of work intent on the hauntingly evocative. Seen in a group, the artist’s paintings take on a monumentality that speaks to a life not known, just beyond our reach. Sometimes mystery is merely a substitute for a lack of knowledge or experience; in Mossé’s art, though this doesn’t happen. Instead, the inexpressible becomes spoken.

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