A Different Kind of Window Treatment

When a major gallery feels it necessary to stress the role of the eye in experiencing art, it shows how far we’ve come, or (depending on how you look at it) how deep we’ve sunk. Hirschl & Adler Modern tells us in a press release that “[p]ainting, for John Moore, is as much about the act of looking—and seeing—as it is about the process of creating a work of art.”

The conceptualist aesthetic has engulfed the cultural landscape like an overeducated blob, blurring the fundamental truth that visual art is, you know, visual. Thinking about art and all the issues that surround it is considered more advanced and intellectually rigorous than looking at the stuff. It’s as if the eye were somehow separate from the brain (a fallacy the critic Karen Wilkin has noted).

The gist of Mr. Moore’s paintings is understated and unmistakable: Perception can be a complicated and challenging process. He reminds us, with cleverness and consummate skill, that how we look can be affected by where we look. A painting’s vantage point—usually a straight-on, picture-window view—is often taken for granted. Mr. Moore’s scenarios are mostly (though not exclusively) seen from above, as if the viewer were hovering off the ground or standing on a ladder.

Some of his images are interiors filled with long tables, chairs left askew, flowers and untidy reminders of recent meals: dirty dishes, crumbs, spills and bottle caps. Other pictures glimpse the city, sometimes from a relatively direct angle, but more often through a window on a high floor. Windows—transparent objects that inherently encourage looking—are a recurring motif.

Despite visible traces of human activity, all but one of the images are unpeopled. In the notable exception, Update (2006-07), we look through a suite of windows at a woman in the distance. She sits by her own window appearing pensive and distracted. We gaze at her from within a well-appointed apartment. The doubled, reflected image of a television newscaster—a sliver of the actual television screen is shown at the bottom left edge of the canvas—shines off an arched window. A deadpan voyeurism marks the scene.

Mr. Moore makes us a protagonist whose role is unknown. Rear Window is the obvious antecedent to Update: The painting’s effect, while not as ominous as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, is unnerving—even more so because the apartment from which we view the nighttime panorama feels strangely independent of us. The painting insists on our being present even as it implies our absence. Just where do we stand exactly? Mr. Moore’s not telling—he offers riddles rather than logic.

Hitchcock directed his actors to follow the movement of the camera; its primacy was not to be questioned. Mr. Moore does something similar: The picture frame is inviolate. Objects such as the coiling chandelier in Incomplete Plan (2005) or the aloe plant in Southeast in the Morning (2006) are situated in the composition with menacing precision. Suggestion is Mr. Moore’s forte—or part of it, anyway. At his best, he’s as dexterously manipulative as a movie by the master of suspense himself.

And his images evince a similarly immaculate orchestration. From the window hanging ajar to the open book to the bright, almost blinding light emanating from the windows across the way, there’s not a wasted moment in Update. Mr. Moore’s tour de force shares with his other paintings a quietude devoid of calm. To call the work Realist would be to misread Mr. Moore’s aims. An otherworldly portent invades these stringent and concise pictures—not Surrealism exactly, but something related to it.

A Different Kind of Window Treatment