Gerard Mossé: Light from Within

“Grounded, Floating”, 56″ x 42″, 2011-2012, oil on linen, courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough gallery.

Gerard Mossé, born in Casablanca, has spent many years in America, mostly in New York, where he has a studio in Soho. He has been working for some time on a central image: a vertical plane, usually dark in color, that is crossed, on the upper third of the plane, by a horizontal band of light. The images suggest a figure but read more immediately as abstractions. Mossé, who has internalized stylistic influences from the New York School, nonetheless presents a current body of work that can be characterized, somewhat gingerly as such words are no longer popular in today’s art idiom, as spiritual. Although we no longer seem interested, even in abstraction, in a visual language documenting internal life, Mossé shows a determination–what can be called a tenacity–to portray something ineffable, to present a vision beyond words. Kandinsky likely was the earliest modern painter of inner intuition; his imagery often is blurred and indeterminate, rather than sharply defined in its expression. Unlike that artist’s ambiguous visuals, in Mossé’s paintings, we find a specificity of an imagistic report that is reiterated in a closely joined series of works. They can be seen as indicating an unspoken insight that is inherently visual rather than being couched as verbal observations. This is of course what painters do, but in Mossé’s case, we see an orientation toward belief, although certainly his paintings do not in any way indicate a specific faith.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems in contemporary art is the effective rendering of metaphysical insight. For the artist, all the major belief systems often feel lacking, and for many, the traditional languages, verbal or visual, used to describe devotion no longer feel useful, or even accurate, in regard to the way we live now. Deracination, the prolonged use of the computer, television’s inanities–all contribute to a diminishment of interior life. Inevitably, visual art and words have been chief contributors to our presentation of what we think and feel. Painting and sculpture have been used to detail our insights, always partial, into a world we may believe in but cannot see. The trick, then, for the artist is to work out a vision of the ethereal that does its otherness justice by refusing to particularize tenets that would bias them toward one outlook or another. This is because, inevitably, given the extraordinary melding of cultures in a global sense, and because of the decline of traditional faith’s efficacy–at least for artists–we cannot make good use of what preceded us in art. A new language is needed. With pure abstraction, the aftermath of cubism, a new idiom was provided–and it worked, at least for a while. But its beginnings occurred roughly a century ago, and its repertoire of visual innovations has been exhausted.

“Untitled”, 79″ x 36″, 2017, oil on linen, courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough gallery.

What can be done? In an art world in which the market currently dominates, rather than a truly critical appraisal of the work being made, it is hard to say. We recognize that the continuance of abstract painting is now a tangential activity–if not a minor one. But, even so, its practice remains alive in individual artists, although the centrality of the movement has been gone for decades. Mossé belongs to a group of painters who are still practicing a style that indeed can be practiced in a time when eclecticism holds sway, but the existence of a very strong tradition in abstraction makes it difficult to develop striking change. Additionally, in Mossé’s case, the viewer senses a drive beyond visual terms. This is indeed unusual in the current art. But at least part of his originality lies exactly in his desire to incorporate, however distantly, a conversation that lies outside the pale of human discourse. The imagery offers not only a nonobjective design but also the presentation of presences that might well be called seraphic. It should be emphasized that Mosse is hardly pious. But in conversation, he has noted epiphanies that present themselves visually and take over his awareness entirely. These stopped moments in time suggest that the artist is closer to rapture than we might think. As a result, his work differs qualitatively from much abstract work being done today–even though, of course, it participates in a general style that is thoroughly recognizable in contemporary terms.

In the end, though, despite the intangible implications seen in Mossé’s work, what truly matters is whether it succeeds as art. It does. The sequential nature of the paintings, their close structural similarity, belongs to visual repetitions established earlier. One thinks of the series of near-repetition in Joseph Albers’ art, where the squares realign themselves within a quite narrow formal confine (although they are differentiated by color). In the more recent art of the Minimalists, there is a precedent for Mossé’s reiterations, even if the medium isn’t painting. Maybe the best way to evaluate Mossé’s art should be taken from music; they may be understood as variations on a theme. There is a larger question also to be asked: Why has serial reiteration become so important in recent art? It may be that the fugue-like nature of this kind of work is an attempt to capture, through subtle differences, a major mental picture that bears continued attention. If the structure of the image is strong enough, it should be able to support ongoing variations. This, of course, happens with an artist like Rothko, and it also happens with Mossé. Such a process remains important in the art of many contemporary painters, as well as their antecedents. Mossé provides us with a truthfulness based on persistent investigation of the possibilities inherent to his structural design. So his artistic report documents his insistence on the validity of his theme. This is at least as important as the spirituality implied by Mossé’s art, which follows from its visual configuration. It is an inherent truth in painting that what we react to first is its image, not its philosophical implications. And because there is not much there in terms of guidance in reading the image, we ourselves–art writer and viewer both–must always intuit an interpretation closely based on what we see.

And in this way, Mossé is an excellent painter. His work points toward a painterly originality that asserts itself through the distinctive nature of its basic design. The image is perhaps idiosyncratic, but this means primarily that it stands out as determined by the artist himself. In fact, the idiosyncrasy turns our attention to the particulars of the artist’s imagination, which strengthens his hand. Balancing between the abstract and the figurative, the paintings describe a world of their own. Mossé’s audience cannot be sure that they lean in one direction or the other. Yet the imagery presents itself as distinctive in its style. It is clear that Mossé’s basic argument attaches itself to the depiction of a psychic self as well as a painterly one. That self is transcendent, as shown by the aura around the figure and the bar of light cutting across its upper register. As I have said, the presentation of a radiant figure suggests that Mossé is working out an idea of spirituality, but one very much in keeping with contemporary life. To do this, it is essential that he record a non-specific impression. At present, it is impossible to define what a transcendent presence might be or might look like; likely, it never was easy to do so! The immaterial is inherently difficult to portray, so Mossé’s objective–the rendering of something incorporeal–has something of the impossible to it. But Mosse intends to try.

“My Grandma Knew This Holy Man”, 79″ x 59″, 2009-2011, oil on linen, courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough gallery.

When we look at an actual painting, it becomes clear that Mossé’s efforts relate to the proposal of a more or less divine order. In My Grandma Knew this Holy Man (2009-11)

–The title alone suggests both autobiography and devotional contact–three rows of thinnish verticals in varying colors–the first bands facing us are a metallic gold, pink, and red–establish an order marked by precision as well as grace. A thin band of light crosses over the entire width of the composition, as always in the upper third of the painting’s register, not only dividing the overall length of the composition but also establishing a luminous presence. The geometry of the tall bands, always central to Mossé’s paintings, is simple but inevitably intimating a figure–even though there are no details in the bands to specifically indicate that this is true. The rows might well suggest an angelic order, but of course, we have no indication what that might actually look like. Inevitably, we must suppose that these forms occur in a hierarchy that attracts the attention of the mind as well as the eye. Interestingly, it is evident that the structure of the painting feels true to a real perception–however unearthly it may be. In contemporary abstraction especially, we have to learn to trust the painter’s intuition, which may or may not be believable in either a visual or metaphysical sense. At the same time, Mossé appears determined to promote a figurative suggestion, which usually can be checked for accuracy but in his case cannot be considered precise in a conventional manner. So, as a result, it becomes necessary to view these effigies as demonstrating a poise that cannot be defined.

“With Burning Patience”, 79″ x 56″, 2012- 2016, oil on linen, courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough gallery.

Mossé repeats similarly in other paintings his attraction to a place halfway between representation and nonobjective design. In the work With Burning Patience (2012-16), Mossé’s audience is closer to what we regularly see in recent work: thicker verticals against a dark background, with thicker bands of light limited to the width of the bands themselves. In the back, there is a thinner band of purple. The background is dark to the point where it looks like night is surrounding these spectral figures. As with many of Mossé’s titles, the implications are poetic and nearly otherworldly. The viewer might well think of a private interior turned into a lyric vision; in fact, this is what regularly happens in the work. We can only surmise the express meaning of the image, but the figures are not so obscure that we cannot imagine their palpable existence. Inevitably, there is tension between the image’s realistic properties and the implicit call of its near-devotional orientation. This is extremely interesting; good modern and contemporary art often comes from taut relations between what we see and what is suggested in what we see. Inevitably, it becomes clear that Mossé is trying to identify a visionary insight, which by its very terms can only be experienced by intuitively, outside words. It is equally important for him to find a contemporary image that would convey his epiphanic experience, which again, by its very nature, cannot easily be shown or expressed. The great painters of the past had a common language to communicate their notions of faith; they are based on biblical narrative. Even people who were not well educated at all–the peasants in the field–knew the stories and profited from their visual presentation.

But this no longer works very well as art. Popular culture is now our shared heritage, and the triumph of popular culture in contemporary visual art has greatly harmed spiritual investigation as a high endeavor. Mossé is quietly proposing an alternative, one that his audience experiences as highly individualized, not belonging to a shared idiom. Yet his paintings are hardly strange–unless today’s viewers find the search for, and presentation of, interior life as unusual! It is simply that this sort of endeavor is not presently in favor. We can understand easily why this would be: materialism has triumphed over any internal search. Moreover, as I have indicated, the old languages of faith, visual and literary both, no longer seem to fulfill. Mosse is extremely courageous in his successful presentation to portray, in not so very idiosyncratic terms, his understanding of a life beyond our recognition. So he finds the language–his own language–that might offer solace. This is extremely hard to achieve. Even so, Mossé accomplishes his objective, which amounts to a successful vision that, while personally driven, is also detached in its offering. As a result, his imagery needs a reading that would explain the psychic implications of its form. This is as difficult a task as creating the imagery itself. But because Mossé is working out a highly particular–and personalized–terminology, his view of things must be explained in precise terms.

“The Angel Was Many”, 20 5/8″ x 32″, 2012-2016, oil on linen, courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough gallery.

In the last piece discussed in this article, The Angel Was Many (2012-16), we see two rather thick figures, still vertical, that are attended by bands of light. Behind them are a row of smaller figures, blue and purple and red, with auras surrounding the form. The image is powerfully compelling. It commands a view that might be considered a summary of Mossé’s otherworldly intelligence. The figures project light from a field of darkness. Perhaps they function as sentinels–witnesses to the unknown. Art’s function remains not only descriptive but oriented toward a theme, although we have to proceed now as if our collective memory of religious imagery across time must be replaced by a separate understanding and outlook adequate to the spirit of our time. Mostly, since modernism, our visual response to inner life has been mediated through abstraction. This is necessary because the very nature of the subject is close to impossible to establish, either visually or verbally. So the terms of Mossé’s insight may well be inherently abstract. We might wonder if this results inevitably in the reduction of the audience; perhaps the idiom necessary to outline Mossé’s explorations has always been complex and hard to understand. So, we might easily say, the project of understanding spiritual life continues to be arduous, demanding a kind of wayfaring that best expresses itself, not only today but before today, in nonobjective terms. Whatever conclusion we may come to in regard to the portrayal of God, or His messengers, as Mossé’s wonderful art demonstrates, we can be sure that his efforts belong to a long Western tradition. And, as this essay has regularly pointed out, the imagery is just as devoted to a demonstrably figurative reading. We don’t know yet that anyone has actually seen an angel, but we do sense, however intuitively, that Mosse is correct in his account. That he has been so successful in his attempt shows us it is still possible to visualize things far beyond our knowing–or seeing.


-Jonathan Goodman

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