Vladimir Grigorovich

at Maya Polsky, through October 20

John Andrews

at Roy Boyd, through October 20

Ken Grimes

at Judy A. Saslow, through October 3

By Fred Camper

The stores are all closed in Vladimir Grigorovich’s nine paintings at Maya Polsky. Each represents a different decaying storefront in somber tones, mostly gray and tan; virtually all the doors and windows are shut. These surfaces exude a quiet melancholy quietly, in the manner of chamber music rather than a symphony. They’re powerful partly because they remain mute: we don’t know the reason the stores are closed or the reason for these paintings of them.

Born in Moscow in 1939, Grigorovich received traditional training in representational art. In 1972, not long after he’d been criticized by a party official for painting the gloomy jail of a remote prison camp, he emigrated to Israel; he came to the United States in 1975 and lives in Jersey City today. Several critics have associated the somber mood of his work with his Russian heritage (“There’s something very Russian about these paintings…love for ‘the insulted and the injured’…buildings that bear the traces of the past,” Serge Hollerbach writes), but Grigorovich prefers not to comment beyond saying of their structure, “Everything’s supposed to be in balance.”

If his pictures are musical, it’s a music of rectangles–door panels, window frames, horizontal and vertical moldings–echoing the painting’s shape. Grigorovich’s facades both acknowledge and deny illusionism: sensuous yet walled over, they invite the eye’s caress but arrest it at the surface. Unable to enter, the viewer is forced to contemplate tiny details of these aging surfaces rather than cross the threshold into another world. There is a little rip in the top panel of a door in Bar, but the tear allows us to see only the darkness inside.

The largest work in the show–the masterful two-panel Rue de Normandie–looks especially closed off. Characters spell out “27 Boulangerie” on one facade, the sculpted letters standing out a bit from the surface, some more eroded than others. These letters and some moldings also sculpted in slight relief are too flat to be trompe l’oeil; instead they mainly reaffirm the picture’s flatness, seeming like accents in paint rather than molded surfaces. Perhaps the work’s most striking feature, however, is a long cross beam spanning the facade that both joins the two panels and seems to be holding a group of shutters closed, reinforcing the painting’s closed look.

What one notices in Cycles Motos Reparation is the profusion of hinges and locks punctuating its flat panels. In Rue Michel le Compte, the classical columns on either side of a doorway look like painted wood rather than marble–which is how Grigorovich remembers them. The gold capitals make the columns even more absurdly grand, given that the sealed door between them seems to be decaying. Like the works of Ozymandias, but more quotidian, this place may have had its pretensions, but it too decays in the end. Grigorovich not only memorializes the “failure” time imposes on any architectural monument, he also redefines the painter’s role: the artist is not the creator of open windows transporting the viewer to another realm but a celebrator of gritty, closed surfaces in the here and now.

John Andrews’s 19 wax-based paintings at Roy Boyd, most of them showing many tiny dots on a solid field of white or black, couldn’t look more unlike Grigorovich’s work. But like Grigorovich, Andrews favors material presentness rather than imagined entry to another world. Both also create works that are peculiarly meditative: the viewer is asked to attend to tiny details rather than imagine grand vistas.

Born in Iowa City in 1960, Andrews currently lives in the small farm town of Oxford, Iowa, and speculates that that locale has had an influence on his work: “Maybe living in a rural area gives me the sense of recurring time, days and months and seasons.” The repetition of dots in squares, often arranged 10 by 10 or 100 by 100, may mirror the renewal of natural cycles, but it may also reflect Andrews’s early interests in scientific illustrations and architecture: he drew floor plans in childhood and planned to become an architect.

Andrews’s methods result in a certain obsessive look. In Display 3, he arranges five squares in a horizontal line against a white field, each square a grid of tiny dark dots varying in density. Though Andrews uses ruled lines for the dots’ placement, he applies them by hand, indenting wax surfaces with a stylus; inevitably the indentations are somewhat random. Later he applies and then wipes off a paste of wax and pigment. Variations in the placement of the dots produces subtle patterns: slightly darker clusters where the dots are closer or short white bands where they’re farther apart.

Since Andrews creates no great views or obvious grand meanings, the viewer is forced to attend to these minutiae one dot at a time: like Grigorovich, Andrews locates the viewer in the present moment, viewing his work. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Andrews turned away from Malevich and Mondrian early in his career, becoming “disenchanted with those kinds of utopian ideas.” He adds, “I didn’t feel like art could have the effects in society that they had hoped for–though maybe it could in an individual.”

In his exhibition statement, Andrews writes of basing his work on such models as “graphs, diagrams, video and photographs of science and technology, industry and commerce.” For some of his works he uses boxes donated by an optician; each of the 36 panels in ID is a closed box seen from the bottom. Each has a printed number and Universal Product Code on the side of the box; Andrews has also stamped that number, much smaller, on the bottom, along with a few darker dots apparently applied at random. I thought of the numbers we’re assigned in life and how these arbitrary markers affect our sense of identity. Andrews’s consciously arbitrary work stems partly from his discontent with abstract expressionist compositions: he says he wants to “remove self-expression completely from the work,” creating forms that reflect the depersonalization of our society.

Still, he recognizes the impossibility of removing himself completely, and his best pieces play off the tension between apparently anonymous forms and personal, even eccentric touches. Abstraction 1 and Abstraction 2 both announce their 100-by-100 grids of white dots by printing “1002” below the grid; the number may be accurate but it doesn’t explain the varied, occasionally lovely patterns that emerge as one steps back. In one group of four paintings, black dots are arranged on a white background in complex patterns: Enlarged View 3 is interrupted by a large white rectangle on the right, inside of which are four circles containing dots much more densely clustered. Also, Andrews has drawn a tiny box around four of the dots in the allover field.

These boxes and circles might be taken as metaphors for the kind of personally determined compositions the artist abjures; the tiny box around the four dots seems a wry comment on the arbitrariness of all human patterns, a way of suggesting that even the grandest composition is equivalent to four dots in a frame.

Ken Grimes’s ten paintings of extraterrestrials at Judy A. Saslow, consisting of hand-lettered white texts and simple pictures on a black field, are almost as austere as Andrews’s dot pieces. And like Grigorovich and Andrews, Grimes avoids illusionism: his simple drawings of radio telescopes and space aliens seem less depictions than symbols, akin to the letters in the accompanying texts.

Yet the raw visual power of Grimes’s pictures comes not from self-denial but from belief. Often large and multipaneled, they recall the grandeur of altarpieces and suggest Grimes’s tentative hope for salvation, if only we can be united with our fellows from other worlds. The nine panels of Untitled (Before European Influence…) show designs Grimes says he copied from “ancient rock drawings,” a few of which do look as if they could be aliens; Grimes’s vigorous lines and the stark black-and-white design give them an appealing force. They’re also simple enough to be glyphlike: Grimes presents language and ancient symbols alike as keys to deeper understanding.

Grimes, born in 1947 in New York City, writes that in college he “became psychotic and had to be hospitalized”; today his manic-depression is controlled by medication. Fascinated by coincidence, he writes that he once tried to influence a lottery through psychic projections–and another man named Ken Grimes won a lottery in England. His library research has uncovered many other coincidences, which he ties to possible alien influence. His artist’s statement suggests that discovering extraterrestrial life will help us here on earth: he compares our acknowledgment of other intelligent civilizations with earlier “blows to the human ego” such as learning that the earth is not the center of the universe. He also expresses the hope that earth dwellers “will put aside our past differences and join together in this new search.”

Grimes’s work has much in common with other outsider art: extensive hand-lettered texts, visionary ideas for human betterment, simplified depictions, and a distinctive “look.” And like much other outsider art, his seems based in his belief in a unique system of facts and values. Untitled (Matching Symbols…), for example, shows two radio telescopes against the night sky accompanied by a text suggesting that both humans and aliens use such devices.

But there are several oddities to this already strange work. Grimes’s printed texts rarely add up to a certain declaration–they’re more like tentative explorations. The all-text Untitled (Both Cambridge and Cheshire…) includes the sentence “If we can locate the psychic cause of crop circles…we can…truely [sic] begin a cosmic journey”; many of his texts contain qualifying “if”s or “might”s. And Grimes’s hand lettering is a bit peculiar: the letters seem compressed at times, as if the surrounding darkness were pressing in on them.

These iconic works have, it seems, a subtext of doubt and even fear, as if the darkness that represents Grimes’s hope for liberation were also threatening to entrap us. In an era when highly trained artists such as Grigorovich and Andrews ask less from depictions, it falls to untrained outsiders to combine personal expression with a desire to heal the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Rue de Normandie” (detail) by Vladimir Grigorovich; “Display 3” by John Andrews; “Untitled (Matching Symbols…)” by Ken Grimes.