Paintings with Names: Michael Voss at Birch Libralato

The eight works in Michael Voss’ well-edited exhibition, Paintings with Names, appear small, unassuming, even – dare we say it? – sweet. But their playful informality and seeming modesty of ambition belie a singular engagement with the very essence and act of both painting and naming. Since 2000, well before Raphael Rubenstein proposed the term “provisional” to describe a recent wave of abstraction with a “casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished, or self-canceling” quality (Art in America, 2009), Voss has pursued an intuitive, exploratory, even arbitrary approach which is tempered by his slow, questioning, and contemplative habit of working on several paintings at once. The result is a family of abstract images which relate compellingly to each other, even as they claim real and imagined territories all their own.

The paintings, like the individuals that make up a family unit, possess certain likenesses, yet each also embodies a self-contained world (or corner thereof), with its own palette, perspective, and personality. Not faces, but recurring forms such as openings, massing, passages, and projections suggest graphic, architectonic, or structural tendencies, while layers, shadows, transparencies and textures imply more gestural, sensual, or sculptural aims. This amalgamation of visual vocabularies amplifies the abstract nature of Voss’ paintings, negating attempts to discern function from form and returning our attention to the pure interaction of shape and colour on the canvas.

Voss’ palette is gentle, muted, and restricted; most paintings are executed in no more than a few colours, with several comprising variations of just two. Through an economy of means, colour is deployed exclusively in the service of form, carving out, covering, or revealing areas of solidity or spatiality – and never in a way that calls undue attention to itself, although the artist’s decisions evince a playful curiosity balanced with a finely tuned sensitivity to subtle modulations in hue, value, saturation, and surface finish on his canvases.

At the individual level, Voss’ paintings lay claim to ample wall space, territorial creatures that they are. The artist further asserts their individuality by giving each a proper name, and not coincidentally calling his exhibition Paintings with Names. Some of the paintings happen to have women’s names, but as it turns out, Voss doesn’t actually know the women whose names his paintings bear. Thus the names are transformed into verbal abstractions: combinations of letters, sounds, and any given viewer’s preconceived notions which confer an additional, unpredictable linguistic layer upon Voss’ visual compositions.

In giving his paintings names, Voss does not seek to represent any one person (or place, as the case may be), but rather to suggest a conceptual or even synesthetic relationship between paintings, persons, naming, and knowing. Just as one can never fully know a person from scrutinizing his or her portrait, Voss’ paintings are inscrutable portraits of unknown quantities, eliciting the same confusion and curiosity one feels when gazing at a face in a found photograph, even – or perhaps especially – if the stranger’s name is somehow known.

Playful yet poetic, the most successful of Voss’ diminutive yet decisive gestures resonate with an aura of rapt attention or devotion not unlike that embodied by the now widely-seen tantric drawings of Jaipur (despite the obvious physical differences). Testing this boundary where simplicity tips suddenly into complexity, Voss marshals provisionality to profound ends, gently – he might say unintentionally – prodding his paintings into the enigmatic realm of alphabets and emblems. Merging the visual and verbal within a language of pure abstraction, his ardent efforts somehow accrue to an inexplicable richness of symbolic potential.

Paintings with Names is on view at Birch Libralato through July 7th.

See more of Michael Voss’ work on Birch Libralato’s website
Read an excellent interview by Aldrin Valdez for BRIC Contemporary Art in Brooklyn here
See Michael Voss’ website here

exhibition views
Michael Voss, Paintings with Names, Birch Libralato, photos by Shani Parsons

Michael Voss:
Alba, 2009, oil on linen, 14 1/4 inches x 12 1/8 inches; Jaqueline, 2009, oil on linen, 14 3/4 inches x 12 3/8 inches; Cerna, 2012, oil on linen, 12 3/4 inches x 11 inches; Choque, 2010, oil on linen, 15 5/8 inches x 12 3/8 inches

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