William Dunlap

Keeping the Faith: Michael Gross and the Power of Paint

“Painting is the best way I’ve found to get along with myself.” Robert Rauschenberg

The human hand is a marvelous evolutionary invention. Useful not only for task mastering but on a more transformational level, as an extension of our very psyche. Divorced from spoken language, the hand can be most eloquent, its mute gestures of excitement, exasperation, defense and defiance, of triumph and despair, are all universally understood.

Imagine attached to that articulate hand a brush loaded with rich, vibrant color whose every motion, no matter how nuanced, is permanently recorded on canvas and locked in time. You now have a sense of the origin of Michael Gross’s paintings.

Recently, I climbed the steps to the second floor of a suburban Maryland townhouse to discover a light-filled space transformed into a well-equipped and ordered studio that would be the envy of most any artist. The paintings, prints and drawings that I saw over the next several hours were a revelation and visual feast.

One confident well-crafted and complex painting after another came down from the storage racks, were examined, talked about and admired. There were works in series and individual pictures that foretold transitions. Everywhere there was color, both riotous and muted. Some were completely painterly abstractions, others more graphic and linear with references to real world landscape and flora. What came as a complete surprise were folios of drawings and etchings. Michael’s first etchings were made with Susan Goldman and have the look and feel of an artist completely at home with the process. The drawings were delightful with an economy of line and form that relate to, but are in no way preparatory for, paintings. Drawing is simply another activity he has mastered.

The Black paintings that open the Edison Place exhibit were especially compelling and for me, produced a kind of aesthetic vertigo. There must be more than a dozen shades of black in each – a feat previously accomplished by Franz Hals in the service of portraiture. Here the goal is more cosmic. It is as if having looked deep into our galaxy, a forged memory appears on canvas – a remote association to be sure, but one that is perfectly feasible when the viewer stands just the proper distance from the picture plane so that peripheral vision is filled and the bravura brushwork still in focus. Try it, and good luck keeping your balance.

Smart and self-aware with an absolute trust in his intuition (especially when it comes to palette!), Michael moves constantly back and forth in front of a work in progress, threatening to “wear a hole in the floor.” Each painting’s label should probably list the mileage walked as well as material, title and date.

Once all the rage and promise of art’s future, good, solid, bold abstract painting has fallen victim to the current irony-obsessed and self-referential Art World. There is still however a sophisticated and demanding audience for this mid-20th century once avant-garde approach to picture making. What’s missing are practitioners worthy of the DeKoonings, Pollocks, Gustons, Diebenkorns and Klines. So, when one appears, we’d be fools not to pay attention.

Michael Gross is intellectually and spiritually aware of these brooding giants, but un-beholding to them in any serious way. His visual language is a highly personal one, but he does tip his symbolic hat to the past with passages that salute rather than quote these masters of abstract expressionism. Identifying these moments are a supreme pleasure and what looking at painting is all about.

At the end of one of the more enjoyable studio visits in memory, what was most impressive was the consistency – the consistency of vision, energy, intent and effort. Michael Gross knows how to close the deal on a picture. No small matter is the high-risk business of action painting.

What Duke Ellington said of music also applies to art. “If it sounds (looks) good, it is good.” These painting look really, really good, and will for the foreseeable future.