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Courtesy of Robert Green Fine Arts

All That Glitters: The energetic vitality of the green in 'Chico-Hop #2'is further enlivened by glitter.

Frozen Energy

L.A. painter Ed Moses continues to make his mark

By Gretchen Giles

Older photographs of the Los Angeles abstract painter Ed Moses invariably show a rough-hewn man in his mid 40s, wearing acrylic-splattered work boats, paint-encrusted jeans and a warm outdoor shirt--the kind you could log trees in for months before washing. His long hair masses forward as he hugely stands over his unstretched canvases, bare sheets of linen laid out upon an outdoor floor, no wooden stretchers yet applied to give resistance to the massive force of his brushes and will.

Like a Paul Bunyan of the art world, Moses is caught in such '70s-era photos amid a frieze of concentrated action. Using a roller and a squeegee to tumble the paint on, he creates large, vibrant panels that both refuse and encourage insight, both forestall and ignite the kinetic spark of movement.

This is artist-as-rock-star, artist-as-he-man stuff. Big-time stuff. Collected by every major museum in the Bay Area, United States and beyond, Moses is an archetypal L.A. painter of the hard-drinking, hard-loving mythic type. Which is why it is such a surprise to walk into the airy, blonde-wood environs of Mill Valley's Robert Green Fine Arts gallery and view Moses' latest one-man show. A two-part retrospective of 10 paintings created between 1998 and 2003, these huge canvases, the work of an oversized man from an oversized masculine mythos, sparkle.

Like the favored nail polish of a teenager, the majority of the pieces in this exhibition glint, wink, shine and indeed sparkle with glitter paint and what might even appear to be a sprinkling of sequins. Pretty, decorative and even girlish, such light-catching tricks are not even hinted at in four-color reproduction, flirting surprisingly against the walls when viewed in person.

Dr. Frances Colpitt, professor of art history at University of Texas San Antonio and one of the leading experts on Moses' work, is nonplussed. "Ed Moses is one of the founding fathers of the L.A. art scene," she explains by phone from her university office, "and one of the things that you can see in work produced back then is that a bunch of really macho guys flirted with kind of sentimental and soppy images, like hearts and flowers."

Describing floral motifs that Moses did in the 1960s based on the fading, homely prints of old fabric tablecloths, she says, "They come off looking like these really gorgeous and seductive flower drawings. His work has never been afraid to explore the decorative or the feminine."

For his part, gallery owner Robert Green tends to the gruff. "I think that it's bullshit to say that art can't be pretty or beautiful," Green says shortly. "He's trying to visualize feelings."

Specializing in the work of abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis and other artists of the post-WWII generation, Green has had his gallery space in Mill Valley for some 10 years, but he's been dealing art for over 30. As a young man at the cutting edge of advertising back before such marketing craft was considered as among the greatest of modern evils, Green says that he moonlighted as a photographer in the early 1970s.

To his great surprise, "moonlighting" was the correct term, as a single shot he made of the Golden Gate Bridge--the towers jutting majestically up through the fog in a clear nighttime sky, the moon hanging luminously above--sold over 100,000 copies in poster form. This instantly recognizable image, which has since become shorthand for the bridge at night, allowed Green to do whatever he wanted. And evidently, that included loading up a suitcase with works on paper of such artists as Matisse and Kandinsky, and traveling the world to sell them.


Courtesy of Robert Green Fine Arts

Built: The paint in 'Sten #1' is laid on like a lava flow.

Settled in Mill Valley, he opens his gallery on Friday nights for the very civilized pastime of martinis and Sinatra, couples dancing on the clean wood of the gallery floors. During working hours, he finds himself in the position of being one of the only U.S. galleries his size with the privilege of showing one-man retrospectives of such painters as Ed Moses.

Having seen the Venice Beach-based artist's work at other L.A. galleries "with no red dots" by them (red dots denoting sales), Green got himself introduced to Moses and went out to dinner with him. While the painter, now 77, famously flirted with the women present, Green bided his time. Moses reportedly finally looked over and said, "What do you want from me, Green?" To which the simple answer came, to sell your work.

With the show opening on Tuesday, Feb. 3, two of its 10 pieces have already sold at approximately $28,000 apiece. That's not a small penny for paintings that some claim are merely decorative, made specifically to grace the oversized wall of that patron fortunate enough to contend with an oversized income.

Is it fair to simply characterize such large, pleasing works as being distinctly of Los Angeles, that pretty land of pretty much everything pretty? Colpitt will have none of it. "No," she says definitively. "You can't group L.A. artists together like that, at least not any more; it's not a regional art. There's art," she assures, "that's just as grungy and abject being made in L.A. as anywhere else."

Something that continuously pops up in criticism and reviews of Moses' work is the idea that he makes "marks," or involves himself in "marking" his canvases. While an expert is on the phone, advantage must be taken. "It's distinct from image making or picture making," Colpitt kindly explains. "When Ed puts down a mark, it's like a fingerprint--it's like an autograph--it's a way of making contact that reinforces the artist's presence. Lots of artists think this way; it's a way of building up the painting without using an image, so that accumulation becomes its own image."

"It's incredible mark making," Green says, looking at one of the canvases aligned against his walls. "It's like frozen energy."

Moses himself told Colpitt in a 1999 interview, "I think that the initial hit you get with painting is its presence, which can be instantaneous--primal and viscera rather than cognitive. . . . I have a very romantic view of [it]. Painting through direct perceptual experience can excite the psyche, but has no name. . . . [It's] an affirmation of existence through obsessive marking, in conspiracy with madness and terror."

And sometimes, it's also awfully pretty.


'Ed Moses' shows at Robert Green Fine Arts Feb. 3-April 4, beginning with an exhibition of work made in 2000-2003. On Tuesday, March 2, the exhibit rotates to show paintings made in 1998-1999. A reception for the public is slated for Tuesday, Feb. 3, 6-8pm. 154 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. Free. 415.381.8776.

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From the January 29-February 4, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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