James Nares: Monuments
On ViewKasmin Gallery
May 23 – June 29, 2019
As a newbie to New York, I was told by many people not to be caught looking up—that if I did, I would appear a tourist. Poor advice. Not to look up is to miss the starry and thrusting energy that is one key to the city’s distinctiveness. But the implication was that there was indeed something to see up there. No one ever cautioned me not to look down at my feet. What could possibly be worth staring at on the ground? James Nares’s new show abjures the winged vision of the skyline that has dominated imagery of the city in art and film since the days of Stieglitz, Strand, O’Keeffe, and Sheeler, in favor of a revealing engagement with the very stones beneath our shoes.
Nares moved from London to Manhattan in 1974, and has used the city ever since as his stage set and subject, looking at it from all directions while translating his motive yet penetrative gaze via many artistic mediums. His present series of formidable paintings tower over visitors on the high walls of Kasmin’s airy new gallery space, but they are the successful products of a concerted effort to look down. To notice the particularities of the pavement beneath one’s feet. To render those surfaces in a remarkably tactile manner. To refer to bodies and histories in a way that Nares’s art always has.
Nares has had his studio in Chelsea since the mid-1990s, but in many ways his practice never left the downtown byways of his early career, when he shot footage and worked in and around studios on Jay Street, in Tribeca, and then Bond Street, in the Village. These productions are related to the contemporary films of Americans Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, the experiential non-narrative work of Robert Smithson and Ernie Gehr, and the landscape-based body films and imagery of Nares’s English contemporary, Andy Goldsworthy. In films such as Roof (1975), Pendulum (1976), and Ramp (1976), Nares treated a nearly-always deserted-looking downtown as his open studio, shooting himself and various implements in motion amidst the soot and Belgian block and brick of Manhattan’s earliest industrial center. The present series of eight paintings from 2018 and 2019 were produced in those well-trod environs, and consists of paintings made by rubbing paving stones on sidewalks in and around SoHo and gilding their resulting surface patterns.
Nares’s opulent use of 22-carat gold leaf may at first seem a concession to the sanitizing Hudson Yards-ing of Manhattan. But the gritty act of getting on one’s hands and knees on well-worn pavement is not performed in celebration of yet another NYC renaissance. Instead it acknowledges the debt owed to generations of speculative working-class people who came through the city’s various points of entry to make the United States their home. It refers to the general gold rush that was America for so many immigrants, and the hands and feet that contributed to the nation’s rise, appropriately, in the Gilded Age. The present works were made by laying out large rolls of synthetic Evolon paper prepared with multiple coats of black acrylic paints, and then rubbing with wax over the surfaces of individually selected granite stones first laid as sidewalks around 150 years ago. There are links to Max Ernst’s frottage technique and traditional rubbings of grave markers and brass church monuments. The wax picks up the nooks and crannies of patterns that laborers chiseled into the stones so that pedestrians would not slip on them in the rain. Back in the studio, Nares and his assistants applied gold leaf to the surface, which adheres only to the waxed patterns. As the artists notes in a video on the Kasmin website, a work’s “size is dictated by the size of the stones.” Titles denote find sites, as in Laight I, speckled like the hide of a big cat, or Lafayette VII, with its wavy arabesque patterns as distinctive as fingerprints. The marvelous Greenwich I, notched at the top right, resembles an ancient Akkadian stele and features seven alternating bands of horizontal and vertical striations, making a connection to hatching in drawing. In Bowery, there is a distinctive, square stop-valve cover with “WATER” lettered across it in a diagonal rising to the right. Wooster is shaped like the prow of a boat or a jutting Ellsworth Kelly canvas. In all the works the gilding adheres to the elements that are in relief: as in a woodcut, these are the raised sections untouched by the laborers, whose physically hammered and chiseled gouges and grooves remain inky and anonymous.
The title of the show, Monuments, plays off the idea of commemorating these laborers who built a habitable city out of the most unyielding materials. It also references the gilded monuments that proliferate in the metropolis and celebrate individuals or personifications, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gold-encrusted General William Tecumseh Sherman and Nike, or Attilio Piccirilli’s sparking Columbia and her three hippocampi atop the Maine Monument, at their respective southern corners of Central Park. But the title also plays with the word “monumental,” and the fact that these are full-scale rubbings of recumbent megaliths that dwarf visitors to Kasmin’s studioMDA-designed cube of a gallery on West 27th Street. They also makes me think of Michael Heizer’s gargantuan Negative Megalith #5 (1998) at Dia:Beacon—that massive over-15-foot tall upright chunk of diorite encased in a steel-lined wall niche.
Rocks rock. Nares, former guitarist for the No Wave band The Contortions, is well aware of this. At the same time, the paintings respond beautifully to changing light conditions in the gallery. When the lights are off, the pictures pulse with the waxing and waning of the sun as it vies with clouds, a changeability inherent in Warhol’s Diamond Dust works that Nares also explored in his “Road Paint” (2013) and “Runway” (2016) series. With the lights on, the paintings’ surfaces shimmer as brilliantly as Walter De Maria’s Broken Kilometer (1979) on Wooster Street under its halide stadium lights. More historically, there is a sense of communication with the spectral divinity in late Gothic gold-backed panel paintings, from Byzantium to Fra Angelico, which created a sense of heaven amidst the changing and flickering light of oil lamps and candles inside churches.
As an artist constantly seeking new perspectives on the prosaic, whether in his hypnotic and absorbing panoramic film Street (2011) or in the wandering, topsy-turvy visuals of Chelsea as filmed in Globe (2007), Monuments reprises elements familiar from Nares’s whole career: an emphasis on gesture or gestures translated, motive mark-making as a practice, time-based media, an obsession with monumentality and history perhaps first inculcated in his “Egypt” drawings of 1983, and technical experimentation. A major retrospective of his work, Nares: Moves, has just opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Shamefully, it does not have a New York venue. It is the equivalent of holding a Lou Reed tribute concert only in Minneapolis. Nares gets New York, the most pedestrian-friendly metropolis in the world. He proves it with every aesthetic move he has ever made, no less than asking us to think about the stones beneath our feet.