Venice’s Andy Moses takes an alchemist’s approach to art

By Christina Campodonico

Titled “Metamorph 1502,” this painting by Andy Moses is a product of years of experimentation with the properties of paint

Artist Andy Moses has a rebellious streak, and so do his paintings.

When his father, famed California artist Ed Moses, discouraged him from becoming a painter, he went ahead and became one anyway. Despite an existing network of artists through alma mater CalArts and his father’s affiliation with famed L.A. art collective the Ferus Group (aka The Cool School), he struck out on his own in New York. And when paint labels warn “Do not mix with oil or water,” that’s what he does.

“Growing up, whenever I was told by authority figures, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do this,’ my first impulse was always to do that,” says Moses, 55. “So I’d be at these art stores and it said, ‘Do not mix this with oil,’ or ‘do not mix this with water,’ so the first thing I would think about is, ‘Well, let me see what happens if a I mix — if I do what they tell me, ‘Don’t do.’”

The outcomes of these defiant experimentations in painting are now on display at Santa Monica City College’s Pete
and Susan Barrett Art Gallery, where “Andy Moses: A 30-Year Survey” runs through March 25.

The exhibit is an overview of Moses’ oeuvre from his time in New York in the 1980s to his current work in Los Angeles — more specifically Venice, where he keeps his studio today.

Hidden along an unassuming stretch of Lincoln Boulevard, the inside of Moses’ studio resembles a kind of industrial apothecary. Stacks of plastic containers filled with paints representing almost every color of the rainbow populate the room, like mini-skyscrapers in a metropolis.

“It’s the city of paint,” says Moses. “And buckets. Empty buckets.”

This is the architecture of Moses’ intensive painting process, an alchemical pouring technique that he’s developed over his 30-year career. After tinkering with the viscosity of each paint, a process he calls “viscosity interference,” he pours and manipulates the hues across
a flat surface during marathon six- to eight-hour painting sessions. But preparing the paints for this event can take up to three weeks.

“The paint,” as Moses says, “has got a life of its own. It starts to do things, and I have to react.”

The resulting works can look like rainbow rivers, psychedelic waves or multi-colored molten lava. Miraculously, the sinuous streams of individualized color — “serpentine lines,” Moses calls them — stay separate and do not mix. Some rivulets are only as wide as the head of a pin, yet hold their own against the crush of colors.

Moses is reticent to give away the secret to his recipe, but he says its origins trace back to his time at CalArts in the early ’80s.

“I was actually at a bar called The Tryst, and the bartender served up this layered drink. It was a seven-layer drink. It was red, green, blue, yellow, purple,” recalls Moses. “And I took a sip of it and put the glass down and the colors were all still separated. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty interesting. I wonder if I could do something like that with paint.’”

An insatiable curiosity about the properties of paint has driven Moses to continue experimenting with the medium throughout his career. In the ’80s he explored how various paints reacted to each other with a series of cosmic-looking paintings combining acrylic, alkyd and silkscreens of scientific journal articles on canvas.

Other developments, like the idea for curved paintings that bend off the wall like concave sculptures, came by accident.

“The idea of the curve actually came from an accident in my studio in New York, where I stretched a painting but didn’t put the stretcher bar together well enough,” recounts Moses. “It curved off the wall.”

But it wasn’t until he moved to his Venice studio in 2002 that Moses recognized the full power of that minor miscalculation.

“When I saw the way that the light was hitting this pearl-white painting, it just struck that it had to be curved and the colors would kind of shift as you walked around left to right,” says Moses. “I thought I could make a multi-panel painting where the wings folded out, and then I remembered the curve.”

Moses’ famous father is one of his biggest fans, but not for the reason would think.

“I would stop and look at anyone that paints as well as Andy,” says Ed Moses. “I’m so amazed and taken aback by his vision. … He’s very inventive in the imagery, the way he puts on paint.”

That’s not something the elder Moses had expected, as Andy did not appear to have any special interest in art during his childhood.

“He was just hanging around watching. I never thought he was paying any attention to what I was doing,” recalls Moses. “It was a real surprise when he started doing these amazing paintings. I said, ‘Where do those come from?’”

A sage at 90, he does have one theory to explain his son’s passion for playing with paint: “He’s an explorer.”

Andy Moses relates his work to alchemy.

“It’s been sort of dismissed as hocus pocus at this point, but I think the thing that’s overlooked is that it was a mode of scientific research. It was a mode of self-reflection and self-discovery,” says Andy. “I think that’s an interesting metaphor for art in general.”

“Andy Moses: A 30-Year Survey” is on view from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays through March 25 at Santa Monica City College’s Pete and Susan Barrett Art Gallery, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 434-3434 or visit smc.edu.

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