Looking for the sublime with a telescope: Harold Ancart’s paintings at CLEARING NY

Featured image © CLEARING New York

Harold Ancart’s current show in CLEARING New York (May 1, 2018 – July 1, 2018) is like that fun new acquaintance you met at the party a week ago. That guy who was immediately charming, colorful, and entertaining. He seemed fun, yet there was this intense mien about him. People were drawn to him. Likewise, Ancart’s show and his paintings are sexy and very attractive. Yet, as with any sexy new acquaintance, getting to know them better usually leads to disappointment. Full of hope for some new connection, we scratch beneath the attractive exterior—only to find that the prize did not live up to the hype. Ancart’s paintings, despite all their grand gesticulations towards art history, never really find anything all that interesting to say about that history.

Contemporary painting’s return to representation is well documented and talked about. New figuration, as it is called, started in the 60s, for various reasons. At times, it was an effective panacea for the boredom of artists such as David Hockney, while also providing the requisite iconography for the protest art of Leon Golub and satirical pictures of born-again political painter Philip Guston. Even now, this return to representative painting accounts for much of the excitement we experience in new painting. When activists asked for Dana Schutz to destroy her painting Open Casket at the Whitney, it was felt uncannily similar to the Byzantine Iconoclasts, whose opposition to pictures only further attested to the power images had over the people who beheld them. Disregarded as “literary” earlier in the last century, the power of particulars and symbolism has fully re-established itself in painting. Harold Ancart seems to be part of a cadre of artists, still attached to the utopian optimism of pure abstraction, who try to find a cranny between abstraction and representation in which to create works around. His works very obviously depict places and things; in this exhibition, these things are leaves, arctic glaciers, and fire.

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Untitled, 2018 Oil stick and pencil on canvas, artist’s frame 113 x 81 inches (287 x 205.7 cm) © CLEARING New York

Ancart paints his chosen subjects in a style heavily reminiscent of Clyfford Still’s paintings, and like Still, his paintings are large and assertive. Jagged patches of color tear upon each other. The geometry of these patches resembles that of a knife’s serrated edge. In a prominent series of works in the exhibition, his style of painting is visually referenced to by Ancart’s choice of subject, that of spiked leaf and crystal-like objects which violently protrude upwards from the base of the painting, as if formed by a sudden clash of tectonic plates. In some instances, like in the large green and red leaves of one particular painting, Ancart’s patches cut into each other to conflate the monumental leaf forms into one violent mass. Moments like this in Ancart’s paintings show off his sensitivity to the act of picture making, and beholding such visual wit is enjoyable. But why doesn’t Ancart just make abstract paintings? It seems to me that the reference to leaves, crystals, or whatever those jagged things are, serves no purpose other than to avoid the now unfashionable label of being a young abstract painter, and to instill some tropicana to fit in the “fun-loving” art milieu. In fact, Ancart’s simultaneous flirtation with both high abstraction and representation causes his paintings to go a little limp in both respects.

Robert Rosenblum characterized Still’s paintings as evocative of an “abstract sublime,” where distinct and powerful factures of color interact to create an overwhelming whole. It appears that Ancart attempts to co-opt Still’s visual language for his own ends. Ancart’s other paintings suggest that he understood Still similarly to Rosenblum, and is himself attempting to describe the sublime in his paintings. It is hard not to think of Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice when one see’s Ancart’s two paintings of glaciers. But unlike the anguish and death in the ruins of Friedrich’s painting, Ancart’s glaciers are calm and undisturbed. While they are painted with some vigor, they float inertly above flat expanses of color, black in one painting and blood red in the other. Ancart has opted for an optically induced sublime à la Barnett Newman in opposition to Friedrich’s more imaginatively evocative one. Unfortunately, Ancart’s juxtaposition of graphic forms with flat expanses of color undermines the effects of both. The red and black, initially so striking, are reduced to just design elements, something to make the pictures pleasant and merely interesting.

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Untitled, 2018 Oil stick and pencil on canvas, artist’s frame 81 x 113 inches (205.7 x 287 cm) © CLEARING New York

Where Ancart makes effective pictures is when he disregards the pressures of cooking together “important” historical styles with the current strain of representation. His triptych of fire appears to be the most directly painted of his canvases in the exhibition, and yet it is also the most absorbing. Not much tearing away at the picture plane or allusions to opticality to be found here, the triptych is a simple layered construction of fire burning beneath a pale blue sky. The anthropomorphic figures of fire playfully dance in rhythm with the rolls of white and black smoke. And this scene repeats from one canvas to the other like potent waves. Perhaps, the motif of fire, in all its awesomeness and danger, reminds one of William Blake’s Paradise Lost illustrations, where fire, both punitive and redemptive, frequently surrounded and threatened to engulf his disgraced subjects. It is hard to deny that there is a hellish quality to this triptych and that accounts for so much more than the tentative, self-defeating sublime ponderings of his other paintings.

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Untitled, 2018 Triptych Oil stick and pencil on canvas, artist’s frame 96 x 80 inches (243.8 x 203.2 cm) each © CLEARING New York

Before I left the exhibition, I made sure to take a look at the press release. Perhaps there was something in Ancart’s paintings that I missed due to my ignorance? What I found did nothing much to challenge my conclusions about the show. It claims Ancart to have treated subject matter as a mere “alibi for paint to be pushed into the canvas.” No wonder the subject matter remained, for the most part, meaningless and contrived. The final line read: “[Ancart] discovers the possibilities for transformative experience are not just “there,” but here, in the arena of painting.” But what does that reveal about the scope of Ancart’s transformative experience when most of his paintings are neither “here” nor “there”?

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