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Color Me Decadent

Gordon Terry's show at New Gallery bursts with lush pigment

Gordon Terry's art sure claims some eclectic influences. Among them are '60s drug-fueled psychedelia and the hokey bohemian occultism and spiritualism popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He pays homage to the fin de siècle magic seekers by loosely lettering their names in glossy white acrylic on a black acrylic panel in -- get ready for a long title -- Some Members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Some Prominent Aesthetes and Decadents. On the guest list are several members of the British occult secret society in question -- including William Butler Yeats, Samuel Mathers and Aleister Crowley. Crowley was declared "the wickedest man alive" by the Sunday Express, and, fittingly, he was also the drug-addled author of the 1922 Diary of a Drug Fiend. The painting is part of "Gordon Terry: Black Holes, Bohemians, Colonials and Boudoirs" at New Gallery.

That's the only text painting in the bunch. Terry's work is primarily organically abstract. He uses vibrantly colored and superpigmented acrylics to create swirled, marbleized and dotted puddles on sheets of glass. Once they're dry, he peels them up and melds groups of them to gleaming slabs of acrylic in black, white, yellow, green…The results are otherworldly and fantastical.

The works draw you in the same way a bright and shiny object attracts a pea-brained bird. Loooook, pretty! The blends of color are gorgeous. Some look like hard-candy versions of millefiori -- you want to break off pieces and eat them. Others have celestial overtones, depicting what could be stars clustered in a system or vividly hued gaseous surfaces of far-off planets.

Terry's influences include Visionaries, Mystics, Decadents and Bohemians (2004).
Courtesy of New Gallery
Terry's influences include Visionaries, Mystics, Decadents and Bohemians (2004).

But the show is something of a conglomeration, with Terry wandering off in a lot of directions -- there's the text piece, several series of abstract works and another series of works in which he's adhering his dots to luridly colored paintings of colonial houses and etchings of opulent interiors. They're oddly interesting images, surrounded by great rococo frames cast from matte black rubber. Some frail common threads run through Terry's works -- opulence, decadence, bohemian/ psychedelic aesthetics -- but it mainly feels like Terry's just trying a lot of different things and putting it all out there.

Right now, there's a disturbing trend in which artists give laundry lists of their various interests. Terry's range from "outer space" to "colonial ideology." It's as if he were saying, "See, even though I make pretty work, I think about all of these things." You have to wonder about titles such as The Chamber of Des Esseintes (2002), which refers to the ennui-filled aesthete Des Esseintes, the protagonist of the fairly arcane novel À Rebours. Is Terry being ironic? Is he serious, or does he feel a compulsion to add "intellectual weight" to work that's primarily about playing with paint? Beauty can be enough on its own.

Looking at the work, you realize the materials themselves are what really inspires Terry. He's latched on to some cool strategies: playing with the viscosity of the paint, even freezing it, and exploring the way colors mix together. The blob elements are like tiny paintings that he arranges on his plexi-surfaces. He presents them in a kind of entomological display of specimens. He's got a system down, and he's exploring variations of it. Some, like Des Esseintes, really click, while others, such as Emissaries from a Vast Ecology of Supersensible Beings (2004), just feel cranked out according to a preset system.

Terry's experimentation with materials continues in paintings in which he smears the pigment in waves and swirls over skins of clear acrylic and stretches that over a clear acrylic frame. Making work like this is a hit-or-miss, one-shot thing, and editing is key. Vivid psychedelic color is Terry's ace in the hole, and the earthier and more muddied the tones become, the less successful the paintings. Overall, they lack the punch of Terry's pooled-paint abstractions.

Stuck way in the back of the gallery, The Resurrection of a Lost Consciousness (2004) is a more successful experiment in materials. Here, dots of opaque white paint pool over a translucent, deep aquatic blue surface. The acrylic is stretched over a clear frame, and you can see the shadowed wall behind the painting. The effect is enticingly hypnotic.

The show's title, "Black Holes, Bohemians, Colonials and Boudoirs," is effectively catch-all. Terry is creating some interesting and often successful experiments, but I don't know that showing such a broad inventory of his work serves him well. It emphasizes the range of processes rather than the works themselves.

There's something about things that are too glossy and pretty that makes me suspicious -- food that looks too perfect to eat, houses too pristine to be inhabited, celebrities airbrushed and Botoxed into something no longer human. The glossiness and prettiness of Terry's work arouses similar suspicions but manages to dispel most of them. There are works that lose their footing and fall into the chasm of the decorative. But more often than not, they're tantalizingly poised on its precipice, an edgy place to be.

 
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