Catherine Kinley
David Ross’s work is confident and diffident in equal measure, perfectly matching the once stereotypical image of a Brit; cool under fire, giving no indication that there has been any need for excessive exertion, at once subtle, and understatedly elegant. These could be read as weasel words at a period when it is de rigueur for artists to reveal their sources and procedures and to transparently quote the processes, traditions and the history of painting. In contrast, Ross’s work has a refreshing opacity; he allows us to glimpse his engagement with a series of models for the problems he encounters but provides no up-front or easy solutions. Perhaps his work is interesting precisely because he will not be tied down; his paintings oscillate between extremes - epic imagery and modest execution, seductive surfaces and rigorous framing (of idea and of image).

Ross habitually works in extended series and has established a set of personal taxonomies as frameworks for his investigations. In 1999 he exhibited a group of small tableaux sculptures at the Byam Shaw Gallery. These consisted of boxed models of industrial objects - a bridge, a ship, a container lorry – isolated behind and partially obscured by panes of thick clouded glass. The effect was of a series of miniature sites that appeared at once familiar and mysterious. These scaled down, discrete (and discreet) objects were representative of a larger body of work that edged towards narrative, sometimes in more complex miniature scenarios, where Ross had hinted at specific geographies and histories through the juxtaposition of landscape references and human traces. For example one such work, a miniature landscape including a set of tents or huts in a clearing of birch trees, strongly evokes but does not quote from a familiar documentary past, the recorded scars and the ominous banality of a century of conflict and disruption in central Europe.

In his vitrine works, by adjusting scale down and by reproducing a familiar museological type of separation, Ross has focused and enhanced the experience of his work. Such an act of separation can sometimes become a trigger or catalyst for other, broader experience, providing the viewer with a longer imaginative rein. In Ross’s case the familiar or evocative iconography framed in his small glass sided boxes become hooks for his real subject – the fact and the problem of making art - and evade obvious historical or political extrapolation; thus any inferred narrative becomes almost incidental to the final work.

In earlier series Ross took the configuration of bridges and the nature of portraiture as his models. For example, in 1978 he used a bridge configuration in order to express a relationship between planes. The ‘bridge’ was refined into a brittle, narrow, almost knife- like span, consisting of two abutted canvasses painted in solid impasto, (a dull iron grey and red lead) which demonstrated the process of linkage with elegant economy but equally efficiently signalled the work’s separate existence as painted surface.

Later, in 1988 - 1993, a series of watery portrait heads, Turin shroud-like in their forensic mildness, surmounted flat planes of colour; each canvas inscribed ‘not to be you’. These works suggested an invitation while simultaneously stressing a separation and a prohibition. The planes of uninflected paint became the barrier between subject and the act of reproduction. The baldly stated negative ‘ not to be you’ was deliberately ambiguous - both an act of separation (I could never be you even if I wanted to be) and a straightforward assertion that this was not the subject ‘you’ At the same time Ross almost begged a question – what might it be like not being you? In this series he was saying something about the interstices of perception, about painting as surface, about rejecting a process of reflection, whether psychological or optical, in favour of painting which stands for but is not like - the opposite of metonym.

The current project develops out of Ross’s previous series, and once again employs a generic peg – the post modern Western – to access a more conceptual drift. Once again it is laid out as a taxonomic exercise, referencing all the essential ingredients from the sublime to the clichéd.

In the new works, Ross invokes the cowboy film – the beautiful Western of John Ford and John Wayne. Here the frame is space, not topographically delineated space but the constructed artificial space of the movies. If in Ross’s works, the deserts and prairies are limitless it is simply because he has not really given them edges. In this they mirror the spaces of Hollywood or the spaghetti Western. It is precisely because they do not replicate the ‘real’, they are not contoured, that they provide a useful arena within which or upon which the artist can act.

It is interesting to note that Ross has been a quiet pioneer of devices now familiar amongst a younger generation of artists, one thinks for example, of the conscious act of separation represented by his vitrines, the hesitant half glimpsed or half rendered images that invade ones consciousness subtly as if from the corner of the eye; the cinematic implication that he is applying a wide angle lens in the more recent work, just as in his early work, he was establishing his own theatre of operations, the deliberate avoidance of compositional or surface seduction; the introduction of palpable reality, for example collage elements -a modernist device now re-invoked by a younger generation of painters to challenge too much narrative meandering on the part of the viewer; the homage to film genres. By a series of subtle calculations, Ross directs us to a parallel world where we can roam free.

Hollywood invented a specific and constructed America and the Western has been part of this construct since the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time, the grand panoramas and the human content of ‘classic’ Westerns were directly influenced by 19th century American Landscape painting – for example the painting of Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) - and by romantic 19th century wilderness myths.

In the thirty piece drawing The Most Beautiful Western completed in 2002, Ross lays out the chief protagonists and conventions of a post-modern cowboy film: here are the handsome young cowboys, the exotic stranger, hints of homo- eroticism (underscored by the presence of the hermaphrodite part female breasted cowboy), the 19th century pioneer woman, half turned away to reveal her Ingres chignon, hinting at the familiar stereotypical opposites of the Western – faithful trail wife / Madonna meets bar girl/ whore. Here we have share croppers and small- holders waiting for the return of the Magnificent Seven or Shane; the gold rush trash; the Mexican bandits, and border men; the infinite landscape, exotic prairie or painted valley, tepees and homesteads. The gambling table, the Mexican bandits, and border men, the longsuffering mother of two sons one the outlaw and one the good guy in a white hat, the hanging tree.

A work in oil on canvas depicting a distant mountain range is intersected by a caterpillar of purple wool – neither train nor stockade, rather perhaps a prosaic grounding in surface values to prevent too much introspection. In another almost uncomfortably ‘ empty’ landscape, a grisly bear passes behind a painted pony, the approved mode of transport for native Americans in westerns, two separate events brought together casually in the same space. Here also is the hagiographic gunfighter with his golden brow and beard, an old Indian fading away into the painted landscape of Colorado, Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the OK Coral painted on polystyrene. Some images are harder to place. Is the red bearded cowboy with his vaguely Christ- like mien a villain or the homo-erotic love interest – Ross counteracts such speculation, reminding us that this is image not narrative by the inclusion of a flat black plane which alludes to nothing but surface. A tree of hanging catkins rather surprisingly suggests another type of mythic landscape, Mother Russia, so often represented and remembered as a forest of endless birch trees.

To view the work of David Ross is to piece together fragments, from a world that is deliberately kept fragmentary, to engage with a strategy that while not deliberately evasive suggests that the artist wants to stay one jump ahead; as with crossing the vast mythic plains of the American West, the landscape continues to recede just when you thought you were getting there.

These days Monument Valley, so long an iconic backdrop in Hollywood western films, has been supplanted in the genre by look–alike landscapes in other parts of the world. Thus an‘inauthentic’ but real landscape is used to represent an‘authentic’ landscape, (itself utterly mythologized). Such subterfuge could stand as a metaphor for Ross’s artistic sleight of hand in the recent paintings and drawings. Just as the objects in his small boxes were framed so as to beg a narrative conclusion but simultaneously to disallow it. Ross hints continuously at an exterior world, a continuity, but each attempted journey into his landscape tests this ‘reality’ and returns us firmly to object and to surface; these are his authentic models, his mythic sites.

Copyright © Catherine Kinley 2003 All Rights Reserved