Darrell Nettles' Geometrical Weaving


 by Donald Kuspit


        Darrell Nettles' art belongs to the revival of the idea of the spiritual in art that is slowly but surely making its way through the New York artworld.  However much this idea has remained evident in abstract art since Kandinsky first articulated it, it has fallen on hard times since the emergence of secular Pop and pseudo-philosophical Minimal art in the sixties.  Now, a number of artists, working with different means, are once again determined to make an art that is a spiritual expression--art that satisfies the need for transcendence, which traditionally involves the need to rise above our own sense of thrownness or creatureliness, and anchor ourselves in what seems enduring.   As Wilhelm Worringer has noted, one way of doing so--also sanctioned by tradition--is by means of geometry, whose forms are not only eternal and universal but at their most intricate seem to bespeak the complex composure and balance--self-entanglement metamorphosizing into self-containment--that comes with transcendence.  In other words, geometry suggests transcendence of thrownness or creatureliness by way of its axiomatic and abstract character, and at the same time is the signature, as it were, of the psyche that has been able, by reason of its steadfast pursuit of transcendence--a guiding psychomoral principle--to integrate itself without losing its complexity.  Indeed, the more complex it becomes the more unified it becomes:  transcendence stimulates self-differentiation and strengthens integrity simultaneously.

        Darrell Nettles has clearly chosen the geometrical path to transcendence.  His geometrical constructions are in effect mandalas: schematic-symbolic images of cosmic unity that nonetheless make the complexity of the cosmos evident.  It is as though one was able to see the cosmos from a position beyond it--a transcendental position--and recognize its most basic features.  This has a calming effect; the appreciation of comprehensiveness restores composure:  one realizes that, however transient one's own existence, one is implicated in a seamless whole.  One echoes that wholeness meditating on it in the form of the mandala.  Centrality is a key feature of the mandala, and meditation on the mandala centers the self by imaginatively centering it in the cosmos:  comprehending the cosmos, one comprehends oneself, that is, become as "comprehensive" as the cosmos--finds the cosmos in oneself, just as one finds oneself in the cosmos.  Nettles' geometrical constructions are abstract self-portraits as well as abstract representations of the cosmos.

        Centrality is self-evident in Nettles' Endless Line Nos. 1, 3, 5, and 6.  Sometimes it takes the form of a cross, sometimes of a small square--the modular unit out of which the cross is built.  The works build from the center, which replicates itself in details that radiate out from it.  However satellite to the center, each has its own autonomy, as in fact every part of Nettles' construction does.  I regard these works as emblems of what Mircea Eliade calls the sacred city-cosmos.  They are ritual constructions of sacred space of which the center is in effect the navel of the earth, that is, the site where it was once connected to heaven.  It is the divine place where order originates.  Eliade points out that the sacred city-cosmos usually has four sides, symbolizing the four pillars that support heaven, the four cardinal directions of space, the four winds, the four elements, the four horizons--the four corners of the earth and all that they contain.  Nettles' square symbolizes this fourness--the self-contained, perfectly ordered cosmos, its four sides integrated yet maintaining their difference.  The square is simple yet complex, for it is a unity of contradictory directions.  Each of its lines is identical with the other, but none move in the same direction--and yet they hold together in a single form.  Equally significant, every one of the Endless Line works mentioned above is divided into four parts--like the Roman city-cosmos, as Eliade notes--and each of its quadrants is exactly the same.  The ritual scenario of the cosmological schema is repeated in a variety of ways, but the idea of self-same unity and inherent perfection remains absolute and unvaried.

        But other works in the Endless Line series have a different impact, however much cosmic fourness remains a principle in them.  While there is clearly a center in Endless Line Nos. 4, 7, and 9, there is not so clearly a center in Endless Line No. 2, and in all of these works there is a sense of endless proliferation independent of any central starting point.  In these works the line intricately weaves itself in an almost labyrinthine way, although a center of geometrical order is implicit--but it is a very intricate, self-entangled order, however much constructed with Nettles' usual economy of geometrical means.  In these works, for all their occult unity, there seems to be more emphasis on complexity.  Each part of the work seems to unpredictably spawn another, even though the result has a certain order.  Nettles has been inspired by African textiles, with their intricate geometrical patterns and symbolism, but these works remind me of the hyper-intricate, animated weavings of the designs in the book of Kells and similar illuminated manuscripts.  There is a sense of primitive energy almost out of control--all but violent and chaotic--that is nonetheless integrated into an order, all the more complex because of the intensity of the energy.  In other words, Nettles' latter group of constructions seem more contingent  and precarious in their order than the former group, which seem self-evidently universal, clear, and stable.                

This playing on the border between energy and order is marvelously apparent in Nettles' drawings.  Again, fourness is at work--four sheets are brought together in a dramatic construction of opposing diagonals, at whose central crossing the mirage of a square sometimes appears.  Strong black curvilinear elements mark one set of drawings, and black rectilinear elements another.  These geometrical fragments seem to be the ruins of an order that has broken down.  Nettles constructs his dynamic new order out of them.

        The drawings are subtly colored, and a good part of the power and dynamics of Nettles' geometrical constructions--reliefs in all but name--has to do with the energy of their color.  Nettles' endless line--broad strips of canvas--is pure color, more or less uniformly applied.  The color is intensified by the fact that it levitates on a wooden stretcher that itself is subtly colored.  (In Endless Line No. 1 its edges are painted indigo blue, heightening the already brilliant brightness of the yellow line.)  This stretcher is itself a complex, two-tiered construction, utilizing molding and, at fixed intervals, wrapped in small sections of canvas (stained with many layers of red and yellow oxide) the same width as the canvas of the more conspicuously colorful endless line.  It is stretched over them, but never so much that the "depths" of the stretcher are not suggested.  They are signaled by the accents of shadow that appear in the space between the supporting canvas sections.  Nettles' mandala is not without its dark side.

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