Other hues might have their moments, but nothing endures like black. In its density, its impenetrability, it is absolute. It is the color of vastness and of unknowable depths; it absorbs without distinction, and returns nothing. For centuries, artists have harnessed the dramatic power of black to imbue their paintings with gravity and drama, from the chiaroscuro mystery of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath and the relentless gloom of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son to the anodyne post-war spirituality of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings.
Peter Demos is well aware of the subtle power black can have on the viewer. “For me, black has this deep power; it’s dangerous, but it also quiets the mind and lets the viewer really look at the work,” Demos says. Demos, who for the past several years has largely devoted his art practice to exploring the potentials and limits of black canvases, is interested in the color’s subtle effect on optics and perception. “My work is about material play,” Demos stressed last month, gesturing to one of the large-scale canvases hanging on the wall of the tidy studio in Dumbo where he worked daily for a good portion of 2012. In the falling summer light, the nuance and precision of Demos’ work was a pleasure to behold.
Like Reinhardt before him, the tranquility of Demos’ works might mistakenly lead the viewer to believe that the process of creating them is a simple one, but his paintings are the result of a complex and multi-faceted technique that rewards careful contemplation. Slender geometric forms float away from the edges of the canvas, endowed with a delicate sheen. Carefully positioned against a background that is totally matte (Demos works on canvases that are dyed, rather than gessoed), they give the impression of graceful figures emerging from, or receding into, a firmament that is fathoms deep.
Demos has had a busy season. Work created during his recent local residency is currently featured in “Post-Op,” a group show at Mixed Greens in Manhattan, and earlier this year he was the subject of a solo show at The Journal Gallery. While he continues to pursue monochromatic work, he is expanding his range: alongside the black canvas absorbing the late Brooklyn sunlight that day stood a delicate study in white-on-white (that other chromatic extreme of absolutism and limitlessness), and he’s beginning to experiment with vibrant pigments as well. “The work I’m interested in creating functions according to an almost linguistic structure,” Demos stressed. “It’s not A-to-B painting, but by imposing these strict limitations, it creates a framework that I hope yields a very powerful experience for the viewer.”
“Post-Op” runs through August 17 at Mixed Greens, 531 West 26th Street, New York.