Christopher Backs at Semantics

If you hadn’t been paying close attention you might have missed it. There is a moment in Christopher Backs’ new solo exhibition Firmament (with Sass) where, underneath one of the hard, heavy folds of his stuffed “clouds” the surface erupts into the pure malerich. Just beyond this exuberant mass of pigment and binder, on a separate piece within eye shot of the viewer, Backs’ brush unfurls an orgy of form that recalls some of de Kooning’s most extravagant drawings of the late 1960s. On the far edge of yet another work, Backs’ mark takes on the trappings of Secessionist ornament. In all of the works, Backs’ approach to color is straight out of the post impressionist cannon.

On the surface, Firmament (with Sass) tries desperately to convince you that it is something it is not. Backs’ floating putti and self gratifying figures all want you to believe that what you are experiencing is soaked in camp; a kitsch laden take on the indulgent traditions of Baroque ceiling painting. But it is Backs’ own brush that betrays this notion. The works presented are no doubt in dialogue with the art of the past, but they never amount to more than passing nods. Compared to the flawless execution of a ceiling by Baciccio, even Backs’ most compelling paean to the idiom doesn’t measure up.

As a whole, Firmament (with Sass) is never possessed of the porcelain finish associated with the Baroque; and ultimately that’s a good thing. Backs’ handling of paint is much too individual and far too unselfconscious to be pinned down as an ironic investigation of decadence. Backs’ might be poking a bit of fun at the substance, but the style is all his own. As a painter, he’s able to deploy several different “hot licks” that shift in and out of dialects at will. Rather than lifeless imitations of technique, Backs’ is able to synthesize modes so that they exist harmoniously on the surface. This ability speaks to an individual who maintains a concerted studio practice and a dedicated search for originality.

The floating sculptures that make up Firmament (with Sass) are, for the most part, a joy to behold. Backs’ painting is bubbly and slick as it effortlessly guides you in and around the clouds. Occasionally, the forms can feel heavy and stiff and “Oh Plato” in particular suffers from a nasty tear at the top that just looks careless. But the moments that take the viewer out of the exhibition are few and far between and do not hamper an otherwise worthy show.
-Alan D Pocaro

Firmament (with Sass) on view through September 25th at Semantics. 1107 Harrison Ave. Cincinnati, Ohio 45214. 513-348-7261.

Pictured Above: Firmamnet (with Sass) Installation View. Oil on Muslin with Fluff (2010)
Courtesy of Semantics Gallery


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