Erik Neff @ raw & co.
There are painters who take a sensual delight in their work as they plunge hungrily into
materials, eager to experience every delicious nuance of texture and hue. Not content to
color between the lines they’re like kids who bask and bathe in the world they make.
Erik Neff is one of them. While he taught drawing, painting, and environmental sculpture in
the Foundation Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art (1996-2006) he became
known for large, quasi-abstract paintings executed in muted colors. A shy awkwardness
characterized these strangely effective, charming works, which can read like formal studies
caught on their day off, casual, unbuttoned, and baggy.
Not long ago Neff began to work much smaller. His works at MOCA’s Side By Side show
(2006-7) were typically less than a foot long or high, painted with oil and beeswax on
hardwood end-cuts. Like his earlier work they had a convincing earthiness about them, but
also a new confidence. More colorful, even a little shiny at times, they were the size of
large sandwiches, and looked good to enough to eat.
The new paintings and drawings at raw & co go in the same tasty, spread-it-on-toast
direction, especially works like May and Low Ceiling. Painted mainly in shades of ocher
seasoned with red and yellow lines, May is a landscape of sorts, with two uneven rows of
creamy rectangles set along the bottom like a wall. Another row of rectangles slants up
from the lower left, like a view of the corner of a garden enclosure, with the long brush
strokes of yellow and red tentatively measuring the walls’ acute angle.
Low Ceiling is the same sort of painting, done in shades of gray with pale blue lines and
rusty areas. It could be a depiction of hills or clouds, but only in a way. Like pieces of a
landscape puzzle scattered at the back of a dream Low Ceiling evokes the significance
and personality of shapes. Several rows of low arcs become increasingly idiosyncratic as
they crowd, hump-like toward the top of Neff’s hardwood surface. At once very physical
and full of some idea, it seems like the beginning of journey, or a child-like imagining of the
end of one.
Features like these continually manifest in the course of Neff’s process, which echoes
other conceptually oriented sensualists of American art like Arthur Dove, or Marsden
Hartley, or Phillip Guston. Any number of first-rank abstractionists active in the past half
century could be added to the list, from Cy Twombley to Brice Marden. What sets Neff’s
drawings and paintings apart is his interest in coaxing traditionally abstract shapes toward
a more specific identity. The wall in May is not quite a picture of a wall, but neither is it
pure geometry; if anything it’s probably it’s closer to biology, a vision of cellular structure
informed by creaturely, emotional affinities.
Neff lives with his family in an old house on a little farm east of Cleveland. There’s a creek
at the bottom edge of the property and an assortment of ducks, goats, and dogs
wandering around. From his studio windows Neff has a view of the gentle slope down
toward the stream and a gray-green knot of woods beyond. It’s easy to imagine how these
visual facts should become part of the vocabulary of his paintings.
For the past two years he’s been a stay at home dad with the domestic time constraints
that go along with having one small child to care for, and another on the way. He says, “It’s
good for me, because I used to demand large blocks of time, and of course you can’t do
that…Anyway I began to work smaller, both out of expediency and as a reaction to the
earlier, bigger paintings. It’s not a compromise, though. I’ve embraced these small
surfaces. There’s actually more compromise involved with big paintings. There are so
many variables, and the time frame is so different; it’s almost the difference between a
haiku and a novel.”
Neff received his fine arts degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Bard College in
the early 1990’s, but a decade before that he worked as a biologist and entomologist. It
would be a mistake to say his paintings are “about” biology, and yet something of a
biologist’s interest in the mechanisms and purposefulness of living materials surely swims
through Neff’s paint, breaking the surface now and again. His pastel on paper drawings
especially seem to strike out in new directions, describing the birth of fresh formal ideas.
Half of the fourteen works on view at raw & co are sampled from this series, made during
the past couple of years. Drawing with pastel is a less forgiving activity than painting,
involving a new relation to materials. At first says Neff, “It was like fingernails on a
blackboard.” He also uses charcoal and sumi ink; the hard pastel lines scrape along
above cloudier levels and layers of visual activity. He uses the same rules of process with
them as with the paintings, alternately scraping and rubbingout, making a mark and
responding to it until some feeling of independence emerges. But the dialogue between
color and form in the drawings is less comfortable, is brave and a little stiff in its attempts
to describe the tentative scaffolding of change.
With highly intuitive work like Neff’s the classic problem of when to declare a work finished
is particularly hard, and takes on added significance. His drawing O.K. Stop, for instance,
takes this dilemma as one of its subjects. Of the seven drawings on display this one looks
most like one of Neff’s paintings. That’s partly because oil paint is one of the main media,
but brushed against a backdrop of rough pastel, rubbed into the surface like road rash.
Gray, white, yellow and black interact, winding around and through a square-ish shape
that occupies most of the surface. It’s like Neff is folding something, or making a vessel, a
cavity. There’s a small scramble of paint against a pocket of burnt umber, and sinuous
black lines make a sort of calligraphic armature. The resulting, indefinable proto-shape
seems oddly familiar, and serves as a bridge between painting and drawing. That may be
all that “finished” can mean in this case, and perhaps all that it ever means: the quiet tone
of a moment briefly audible against the noise of endless actions and reactions.
[Free Times 10/24/07]
Low Ceiling, Erik Neff, oil on panel, approx. 8"/5"