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James Nares’ musical, dancerly canvasses show his growth

For a long time James Nares has been a downtown cultural icon for one reason or another. Though always a painter, he has also been a musician, performer, filmmaker, and new-wave club personality. Painting is supposedly one of the things a person gets better at the longer one does it. Nares’ work is an example of the truth in that adage.

His current exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery is certainly his best show to date. Nares makes paintings of simple brush strokes. Though his stroke is sometimes compound, the end effect is a single entity or gesture with character, energy, and momentum. These paintings are not about anthropomorphosis, but rather the essence of a disposition or of the stroke itself. The strokes are made with very wide brushes that Nares makes himself. If the stroke is not right, it is squeegeed off the generally monochrome background and done again.

Lately, Nares has used a harness and suspension device to enable him to hover over horizontal canvases and apply the stroke more freely. The results are beautiful floating things that have a close relationship with dance and music. As dancers, they do all 16 dances. As music they’re sometime rhythmic and funky, sometimes primal, and sometimes lyrical and romantic.

The almost three-dimensional appearance of the strokes tempts an ironical or campy reading. Some similarity to Lichtenstein’s “Brushstroke Paintings” offers the possibility of a pop or cultural critique reading of the work. There is no smarty-pants irony here or collegiate illustration of theory. The work recalls the story of the Zen monk who, after hours of meditation and in an ecstatic state, dipped his own hair in ink and made the perfect calligraphic stroke in seconds. Nares is neither a monk nor particularly ecstatic, but that’s the sort of concentration we’re faced with here.

Cultural references are many in Nares’ work, but I prefer to take the strokes at face value and just admire a strident bugaloo, or a samba in emerald green. Nares has made these painting for a long time. The new work seems to have more varied and specific color in the strokes, ranging from a kind of blood red, transparent coca-cola color to his favored deep and holy blues. There is also more subtle background variation in the new work.

With much the same result though in a different medium, Nares is showing photographs at Kasmin’s annex on 27th Street. Nares, using his body and limbs and a strobe, has taken digital pictures he calls chronophotographs, that resemble angels, nautilus shells, skeletons of unknown species, and just plain unknown things, all hiding in light and time. I can’t stop thinking how a colleague said James Nares is like Oberon. I’m not quite sure about all that implies but there really is something powerful, even magical about this work.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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