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Alfred Mac Adam: David Novros, Wall Paintings

Installation view, David Novros: Wall Paintings, Paula Cooper Gallery, October 28 – December 2. Photo: Steven Probert.

Let’s get something straight right now:

"Well, as you know from our previous conversations, I don’t like the reference to my work in any way as sculpture, and I try to keep it out of any conversation I can. I see them as paintings of a certain kind, wall paintings, portable murals, as it were. I made them definitely with that in mind." (David Novros in conversation with Michael Brennan 2008)

It’s an admonition we must respect when dealing with this terrific show because the wall and the work hanging on it have a consubstantial relationship. The paintings will eventually hang on other walls, but it is the wall as an infinite, inhuman plane Novros demands we take into account to understand them. Portable murals, as Novros calls them, wall paintings meant to be seen against that blank, meaningless void on which they confer structure, human order. So not sculpture, but perhaps architecture.

The shared title of the four grand paintings, made in 2022—Asturias—supplies a partial explanation of Novros’s intentions. The autonomous region of Asturias in northwest Spain contains pre-Romanesque churches of an architecture so severely geometric they could have been designed by Robert Venturi. Churches that contain the remnants of stylized mural paintings where naturalism is sacrificed to formal structure or where interlocking loops constitute gratuitous decoration. Novros’s own predilection for right angles may well derive from his experience of these severe structures whose very shape defies the irregularity and chaos of nature.

Walking into the cavernous Paula Cooper space, the first thing we notice in Novros’s new work is its bipartite division, an upper register and a lower register. The upper level works on a horizontal axis while the lower is vertical, reminding us of an architectural structure supported on columns. The rigorous right angles above delineate a specific space, a carefully planned rectangle divided into sections. That tight structure pours down on the vertical axis to create a serial “T” formation causing the viewer to acknowledge the presence of the two spheres, one celestial, the other material. Novros’s opposition between the upper and lower zones has other ramifications: the origin of the word temple has the etymological root tem, meaning to cut or cleave. So, the opposition between above and below also defines the place where the sacred and the profane meet. Again, the presence of those ancient Spanish churches is manifest in these spare structures: Novros has turned the gallery into a domus dei, the place where the spirit resides.

These four pieces hang on the wall in a tension simultaneously static and dynamic. They don’t move and don’t change color as some of Novros’s earlier works did by means of strange paint and light combinations, but they do draw the eye simultaneously in opposite directions. Even as we experience the horizontal in opposition to the vertical—the earthy let’s say in opposition to the spiritual—we do a visual dance to the tune of Novros’s color patterns. This works through color juxtapositions. Asturias 2, oil on canvas, is made up of 20 panels and measures 11 × 15 feet. Synesthesia enables us to read the colors here as a species of musical annotation, with high and low notes arranged in harmonic succession, magenta yielding to pale blue. In the lower register, where the elements or legs are all vertical, the shading is more uniformly subdued, like a chorus supporting principal singers. The interaction between the two levels confers unity on the piece as a whole. (An ephemeral factor also plays a role here: the work is reflected in the polished floor of the gallery, creating a spectral double and evoking the image of Narcissus enthralled by his reflection in the pool.)

Of particular interest in this show is the presence in the entry area of four watercolor and graphite on paper studies for the four magnificent pieces in the main gallery. David Novros does not work on what we could call a domestic scale, and his work here challenges the very idea of private ownership, but these four studies in their intimate 12 × 16 inch format evince an intimacy and delicacy that enthrall, again, because of the orchestration of color. Compare the deployment of hues in the study for Asturias 2 with their counterparts in the finished work: it is as if youth were passing into maturity.

— Alfred Mac Adam