Rupert Deese

Art Forum February 2013 page. 246

Rupert Deese


Rupert Deese’s self-described “painted structures”—there were a dozen
in this exhibition—could be regarded as versions of what Lawrence Alloway
termed “systemic painting,” or, as it has sometimes been called,
“pattern painting.” Yet the appearance of a pattern is only an illusion.
To create each work, Deese made a mold based on the elevations represented
in a topographical map. Then he arranged triangular tiles on top
of the mold, building a structure whose surface approximates features
of the landscape, its peaks and valleys. This faceted ground is painted
a single, unmodulated color, yet as light and shadow play across the
angled structure, the tiles appear to vary in tone, ranging from dark to
nearly white. Across a painting, these differences create a sort of quivering
effect, a gentle quirkiness artfully emerging from a strictly regular
framework. Though cut off at the paintings’ edges, the triangular motif
seems to continue beyond them, infinitely.

Although Deese’s paintings look like allover geometric abstractions,
their titles give the meaning away. A tondo was titled Merced and
Tuolumne, 1996, after a river in California’s Stanislaus National Forest.
The other paintings on view here (all are rectangles, with the exception
of one parallelogram) were titled after California’s Kern River Valley.
Thus, Deese is a landscape painter, but with a difference. He is less
interested in representing the “rocks, water, flora, and sky”—I am quoting
him—than he is in finding an abstract correlative for their “shapes,
colors, rhythms, and patterns.” Does one dark-brown painting refer to
one of the three mountain ranges—the Greenhorn, Piute, and Scodie—
that surround the valley? Do the “flowing” surfaces suggest Lake
Isabella? Deese factors in the “time . . . gazing at a scene works . . .
simultaneously complete and changing.” He succeeds: The patterns
seem at once fixed and mutable, the wavering color conveying nature’s
flux. Many of the paintings are oil on wood, meaning that the depicted
environment—the forest—is their “foundation.”

The uneven surfaces convey a general impression of the terrain
Deese was looking at, but they also suggest the roughness of the ground
underfoot. He offers the sense of looking down from a height and simultaneously
being very close to the surface; he wants us to walk the
terrain with our eyes.

The paintings in this show are beautiful, by which I mean that,
despite their eccentricity, they are harmonious. In the nineteenth century,
American landscape painting began, with the rest of the country,
to “go West,” finally reaching the golden state of California. Deese’s
paintings suggest the alluring luster of that mythical destination, but
depict it as a pristine abstraction—a sort of “sensational” idea.

—Donald Kuspit