THE BLACK AND WHITE RAINBOW
By Peter Frank
Painting is the loneliest art. (Well, poetry is lonelier, but it feeds on its loneliness. Painting does not.) The conception of a body of paintings takes place in as much of a vacuum, as much of a private space, as does its execution. A studio is at once a feedback mechanism and an anechoic chamber: ideas go there, or come from there, virgin-born, tested only by their direct relationship to the artist’s intentions. In particular, Richard Nocera’s “Sequoia” paintings, comprising a series he has been working on over the last four years (since the birth of his daughter who shares her name with the series), maintain the feverish glow of an urgent concept struggling to break free of its shell. But in the end, once the painting is born into the world, the idea that fertilized it takes its shape rather than vice versa. Its thingness has consumed both its concept and its method. This is true of all paintings, but the Sequoia paintings depend overtly on this process, in fact exemplifying it.
The elementality of the compositional formula underlying the Sequoia paintings seems designed to communicate that embedded (or perhaps “enhanced”) facture much more efficiently – communicate through visual and somatic experience, that is, especially given the choreography the works all but explicate. The paintings result from the motion of Nocera’s arms (his hands in fact play a secondary role), extended with a broad, metal-edge trowel to the surface. For its part the surface is a given, a support coated with a film of tar – a kind of anti-gesso. The gestured form that results reflects, even physically embodies, the “dance” of the arms. It is a calligraphic mark, fleshed out with its own malleable material. In fact, the dance is relatively brief and brusque in its containment. Nocera’s approach emulates the calligraphic tradition: the long contemplation of the site of activity, the burst of realization, the retreat. Nocera enacts this literally but unself-consciously; he is far from the only abstract painter to operate this way. Even in western painting the meditation-strike is by now second nature. He does, however, make it work for him uniquely.
Indeed, Nocera’s Sequoia paintings (and to varying extents his earlier work) fit themselves comfortably in the western gestural tradition. Interestingly, though, although American-born and America-trained, Nocera produces works that bring less the Abstract Expressionists to mind than they do the American painters’ informal counterparts in Europe. If the sobriety and visual focus of the Sequoia paintings harks back to the “American sublime” of Rothko, Newman, Still, et. al., their elucidation of gesture – and the resulting visual emphasis on line, contour, and tone – betray connections, however unintentional, to the tachiste painting of Fautrier, Mathieu, Sonderborg, Zao Wou-ki, and others, survivors of war and occupation whose existential reflections took the form of obsessive scumbling, expansive motions, and tenuous architectures blossoming from the often-accidental emergence of marks. This was and is not mark-making per se, in Nocera’s case any more than in that of his European (or for that matter American) predecessors. But it structurally engages the marks it bears.
Quite deliberately, Nocera achieves a very few effects with his positive-negative formula. The adhesion of a very light pigment to a very dark surface, of course, determines a stark figure-ground composition. The elements assume equal responsibility for the visual drama: both are protagonists, counterbalancing rather than opposing each other, determining (again to reference dance) a painterly pas de deux. Their respective characteristics contrast one another: the black pitch may bear texture, but it is otherwise uninflected, a curtain of negative space, while the titanium-white figure (or, especially in the earlier paintings in the series, figures) exhibits myriad inflections, its folds and shadings, rills and troughs the result of Nocera’s upper-body launch with the towel.
For Nocera, the presence of black, the presence of white, and the interaction of the two presences comprise a symbolic harmony, a balancing of two contrasting – but mutually reliant – principles. The symbolism reaches as far as his personal life: indeed, it originates there. The Sequoia series is named after the artist’s daughter, born of an African-American mother and a European-American father. The alignment of the basic elements in each Sequoia painting according to color is clear, and in personalizing that alignment Nocera also symbolically extends the resulting harmony beyond his home and into society, American society most of all. But the binary condition of the Sequoia works also speaks to gender principles, the openness and evenness of the ground, the yin to the yang of the active, gestural figure. Nocera locates himself – procedurally as well as symbolically – in that dynamic white figure while honoring the more-or-less unmodulated black field as the grounding force. Neither element is an alien “other,” and the whole that results from their interplay is greater than either of them.
In his Sequoia paintings Richard Nocera does not espouse a binary approach to existence; he simply employs one. The Sequoia series, you might say, is an experiment in elementation – although not one in reduction. The means are reduced to begin with; Nocera engages them in a variety of painterly interactions that, if anything, complectifies the relationship of figure to ground. The ground does not manifest absolute “absence,” nor does the figure embody “presence.” Rather, each factor seeks and gains fulfillment from the other. And the lucidity of Nocera’s formula does not propose a recipe for mere harmony. Anything but: there are frequent moments of tension and even seeming dissonance. But these resolve, or at least assume a concordance that allows them their quirks and uneven passages (the tar, close inspection reveals, no less than the titanium). At worst – no, at best – yin and yang agree to disagree, and, similarly, their inner conflicts neither resolve nor dissolve. Nocera’s depth of field and articulation of figure relies not just on a clearly-stated contraposition, but on intricately conceived presences. How human is that.