John Ochs makes a classic Kansas City abstract impression


Do macho, gestural paintings seem to define Kansas City’s aesthetic?

Perhaps the legacy of Kansas City Art Institute professors Lester Goldman and Warren Rosser is simply too hard to shake. Kansas Citian John Ochs graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but his work carries the stamp of abstraction so common among Kansas City artists.

Jan Weiner has 10 of his paintings on view; all but one are from 2008, and all are on paper, panel or canvas. Most successful are the larger works, the ones that make room for Ochs’ paint manipulation.

In “Standing Behind,” for example, Ochs poured and manipulated layers of shellac into broad biomorphic forms that, in this case, seem to resemble a map. The drips speak to his admiration of Jackson Pollock, as does the pour. Yet Ochs combines that manipulation with signature curvilinear strokes and rectangular borders, creating tension between the two effects. He has always used unexpected color combinations that are pleasingly jarring; here, grays and oranges are perfectly balanced, giving a framework to the small pop of green in the upper right.

In his artist’s statement, Ochs quotes Clement Greenburg, the aesthete formalist and early champion of the Abstract Expressionists. Now long dead, Greenburg insisted that information and knowledge emerge from pure color and abstraction; his was a preference of form over content. It seems curious that a young artist is quoting such a stodgy formalist whose hidebound ideas have been overshadowed by more socially relevant and engaging cultural and theoretical discourses of the past 20 years.

But sometimes an artist’s statement is better left ignored.

Instead, look at “The Guide.” Using alcohol combined with the shellac for a particularly lacy effect, Ochs creates large areas of white that are pixelated by dark-gray dots, which seem to emerge from underneath. The right half of the painting is a pink field highlighted by wrinkled layers of shellac underneath. Juxtaposing the pink with browns and oranges elsewhere, Ochs exploits dynamic color combinations. He creates surfaces with unexpected bumps and creases that — whether he intends them to or not — evoke geographies. Resembling rivers and bodies of water as viewed from above, this painting, like the others, suggests a topography of undiscovered places.

That sense of the unexpected and under-explored characterizes Ochs’ work. While deliberate and obviously thoughtful, he makes paintings that are largely exploratory in nature — investigations of form and color and relationships and media. What happens when you mix alcohol with shellac? How does shellac wrinkle and reveal sub-colors? How does one color colonize another? From these queries come paintings of substance and gravitas that provide unexpected rewards.

Still, there’s no getting around the feeling that abstraction dominates this city.

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