Donald Moffett Shows Enigmatic New Paintings in Austin
There’s something familiar but disorienting about Donald Moffett’s latest paintings. They’re vibrant and textural, but the subjects aren’t quite identifiable: you can’t tell if you’re looking at something natural or manmade, whether the subject is in extreme close-up or shown from a distance.
You can’t even say for sure whether these paintings are realistic—depicting thick fur or a plush fabric, for example, or the enlargement of an organism as seen through a microscope—or abstract. Taken together, as they are when you walk into Lora Reynolds Gallery in Austin, their effect is potent. In one sense, these paintings are suggestive, provocative textures, shapes evocative of living beings. In another, reminiscent of leaves, ferns, honeycomb, sea stars, and even orderly—their patterns and structure call to mind geometric decorative motifs found in Islamic art.
That Moffett draws from so wide a range of inspirations should come as no surprise. The artist was one of the original members of the 1980s AIDS activist collective Gran Fury, and he’s had an influential role on New York’s art scene in the years since. Some of his best-known works are expressions of his social activism, raising direct questions about issues like gay rights and homosexuals in the military. In other projects, he’s explored these topics in a subtler way, as in “The Radiant Future,” a 2012 exhibition of painting and sculpture at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. “Piercing the surfaces of his paintings with voids and covering what remains with monochromatic paint extruded as prickly, highly tactile matter,” wrote Jane Panetta in Art in America, “Moffett conveys in these works an understated violence and implied sexuality.”
Those same descriptive phrases easily apply to Moffett’s newest works. Though there’s no sculpture here, nor video projections, as the artist sometimes works with, there’s a vivid and multi-dimensional feel to these paintings. The current show at Lora Reynolds Gallery coincides with the final weeks of the Blanton Museum of Art’s major exhibition of the artist’s works, also in Austin.
Moffett’s technique is a particular one: first, he stretches canvas over plywood, then drills holes into it before applying delicate threads of oil paint. These are relief works: the filament-like textures and voids could be read as human hair and orifices of the body, or as bullet holes and animal fur. It’s the ambiguity in both form and subject—the idea that we don’t quite know what we’re looking at, or how it was made—that makes this addition to Moffett’s body of work so intriguing and incendiary.