Juan Uslé: Horizontal Light
On ViewGalerie Lelong & Co.
May 21 – July 2, 2021
Horizontal Light, Juan Uslé’s current show at Galerie Lelong and his first with Lelong in New York, extends his series, Soñé que relabras (“I Dreamt That You Revealed”) into its third decade, a degree of continuity that reflects the artist’s deep engagement with fundamentals. These are process paintings with existential weight: the five large paintings and related smaller works shown here are grounded in life’s basics, with modulations in the density and spacing of their stacked arrays of repeated brushstrokes, made with a pulsing motion that is derived from the artist’s own heartbeat. Profoundly temporal, they also suggest the act of breathing, and the close juxtaposition of stacked rows reminds us of our mortal confinement in bodily processes.
Named for rivers in America and Europe—Hudson, Loire, Ohio, Guadalquivir—the larger paintings set this bodily experience in the broad geographical context of Uslé’s nomadic dual residency in Spain and New York, and within a deeper human experience of space. The artist breaks his vertical fields of regular brushstrokes with horizontal “zips” that set Barnett Newman’s evocations of the sublime on their side; they suggest the longitudinal expanse of river banks, with implications of distant forests and mountains, which turn out on close inspection to be just marks of the bristles of Uslé’s brush and layerings of white impasto. Traces of taping further root these aspirations to transcendence in the painter’s material process.
Similar longings also emerge, filtered through layers of pigments, in the paintings’ evocative light. Uslé varies the concentration of dry pigments in the vinyl emulsion he employs as a medium to generate a range of material qualities, from transparent glaze to hardened enamel. Combined with variations in the spacing of the strokes—areas in Soñe que revelabas (Bravo) (2020) and Soñe que revelabas (Ohio) (2020) are looser and more ragged—these suggest larger changes in atmospheric conditions. The lower section of the predominantly gray Soñe que relavabas (Loire) (2021) seems to reflect, Monet-like, an overarching sky. Uslé’s strokes are usually vertically oriented, but he also tilts the brush to generate triangular patterns; in Soñe que revelabas (Guadalquivir) (2019–20), the most complex and sensual painting, these overlie ribbon-like undulations of bright pink which evoke flowing water as well as bodily rhythms. Uslé’s hand is evident throughout, as he resists any sense of the mechanical. His calligraphic marks take on more vulnerable solo roles in the smaller works, and occasionally an independent line, as in Soñe que relavabas (Hudson blue) (2021), breaks free of the regular arrays and follows its own course across their borders, seemingly directed more by external forces than by the painter’s willful intervention.
The fundamental opposition of black and white, which is more stark and abrupt in the smaller paintings, assumes metaphysical implications in the larger works, where the luminous “zips” are offset by broader zones of blackness, blocks of subtly varied tones reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt. These are painted over layers of strokes whose submerged pulsations, like an ongoing vital impulse, can be discerned in low relief, amid reflections generated by the shiny vinyl surface. They endow darkness with a visual richness comparable to that of the densely layered lighter zones. The 12 smaller paintings, like the three drawings, are more frequently interrupted by subdivisions, improvisational calligraphy, and shifts in the position of implied horizons, as though to offer arenas for experimentation. Among them, Dos Lenguas (2019–20) offers a vivid, more informal close-up of his process.
Critics have noted the photographic character of Uslé’s paintings, with their luminous surfaces, contrasts of dark and light, and allusions to time. Uslé’s own photographs were featured in a survey in Germany earlier this year, set in dialogue with his paintings in multi-panel compositions, lending the paintings (which sometimes appear in his photos) an aura of remembered or imagined experience. While he avoids media imagery and digital techniques in his paintings, Uslé offers us a body infused with technology, sublimated within the embrace of luminous fields that suggest electrocardiograms. The repeated rows found so frequently in his works also recall the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, while Uslé’s suspended brushstrokes evoke David Reed’s cinematically inflected images. They harken yet further back to Reed’s early “brushmark” paintings of 1975 with their stack slabs of gray, or even to Joan Jonas’s classic 1972 video, Vertical Roll. But a more basic reference for their disciplined expression might be Josef Albers, who directed his Bauhaus students to draw rows of parallel lines at varying intervals to suggest modulations in light and surface relief, demanding a self-directed coordination of disciplined movements with close attention to the visual effect of their spacing. Albers explicitly rejected expressionistic gestures; Uslé, by grounding his markings in bodily rhythms, avoids both mannered inflection and mechanical rigidity, endowing his handling with an immersive, meditative poignancy.