Barry Nemett's recent paintings and drawings are a testament to a lifetime of uncompromised practice and ceaseless development. His solo show Expanding the Grid: Italy and France, currently on view at Denise Bibro in New York, reflects a deep investigation within tight parameters. Despite sameness in material, methodology, and subject matter, the show spans a breadth of approaches to a consistent end: re-organizing nature's visual material into formal harmonies while constructing truthful fictions. The work exhibits real and rare mastery in painting.
Throughout the course of a long work session, Nemett paints or draws on a single piece, linking together passages observed at different times of day and possibly from different sites. A field lit by the morning sun may, in a painting, abut a shaded grove of trees from the next town over. Coincidentally, the inconsistent lighting gives the landscapes a dynamic effect. They recall the continuous shifting and pulsing of light one sees in nature, caused by the passing shadows of clouds.
Nemett's painting has its roots in formally-driven abstraction. Representation came to him later, as a development in graduate school. I'd agree with artist and writer Alan Feltus that Nemett's motives in depicting the landscape are less sentimental than formal, that the artist is "completely immersed in a dialogue with the colors and shapes in their unifying light" ("Measures of Time, Rhythms & Rhymes," 2008). His paintings and drawings re-arrange observed shapes and lines into strong visual rhythms that carry the viewer strategically across and around the format. But surely Nemett sees the land as more than an easy supply of forms; landscapes like Cloud Watching contain an epic, sublime quality that hearkens back to 19th century Romanticism. Of course, there's a theatrical bent to the Romantics' decisions; their compositions often feel staged for the viewer's thrill. Nemett's work somehow feels more honest, even while it sweeps you off your feet.
Nemett reinvents the landscape's composition in pursuit of an honest expression of cumulative personal experience, in addition to pure formal balance. The landscapes weave together extraordinary moments, each recorded faithfully from nature or memory. While disparate in time and space, they delineate the story of a greater, total experience in the world. To complete each image, Nemett pieces together multiple panels, often building on a piece over the course of years. The evidence of his signature method emphasizes each picture's narrative, expansive quality. In Stone Houses and Garden, Lehon, the conspicuous grid of seams, along with slight discontinuities between adjacent panels in color and tone, embed the footprints of passed time into the painting.
Whereas paintings like Cloud Watching or View from Montecastello with Chimney show a more or less consistent, thin application of gouache, newer works incorporate saturated color and impasto. In View from Montecastello with Tree and Tiber River, thickly built-up marks describe the texture of the tree and spread to moments in the background. Nemett's paintings and drawings are typically saturated with textural variation, but the third dimension opens a whole new level of mark-making possibilities.
In the artist's Baltimore studio, I had the fortune to see Umbrian Landscape with Soccer Field II, a new painting that takes this path to a brilliant end (or a new beginning). Soccer Field depicts an aerial view, while the physical surface throughout recalls natural textures like foliage or tree bark, deliberately hinting at the character of closer perspectives. Nemett collides coexisting visual realities, normally separated in human perception as distinct experiences.
Soccer Field is destined for an upcoming solo show at the Guilin Art Museum in China, but Expanding the Grid performs a similar function collectively. In works like Trees, or Stone Houses and Garden, Lehon, Nemett closely studies the textures of tangled branches and masses of leaves. As a whole, the exhibition continually zooms in and out on the landscape, recreating for the viewer a dynamic perceptual experience of the natural world.
Expanding the Grid: Italy and France is currently on view at Denise Bibro Fine Art in the Platform Project Space, at 529 West 20th Street 4W, New York. The exhibition is up through January 11, 2014.
More information about Barry Nemett can be found at www.barrynemett.com. All images courtesy of the artist.