Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

Thomas Nozkowski at Max Protetch, Tony Berlant at Lennon, Weinberg

Max Protetch until March 18 (511 W. 22 Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-633-6999)

Lennon, Weinberg until March 11 (514 W. 24 Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-941-0012)

Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (8-75) 2005 oil on linen on panel, 23-1/4 x 29-1/4 inches Courtesy, Max Protetch Gallery
Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (8-75) 2005 oil on linen on panel, 23-1/4 x 29-1/4 inches Courtesy, Max Protetch Gallery

Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings call out for oxymoronic exaltations: bravura reticence! Fluent awkwardness! Grandiose humility!

Mr. Nozkowski’s inventions burst with a peculiar hybrid energy that takes its charge from doubt. He makes “anxious objects” that, rather than allow viewers to lose themselves in the pieces’ inherent sensuality, revel in self-questioning, whether about scale, intention, resolution, or purpose. His highly personal iconography — derived from observed things and phenomena but coy about their sources — brings to mind a phrase Frank Auerbach used in relation to the late works of Walter Sickert: “Grand, living, and quirky forms.”

But Mr. Nozkowski’s latest exhibition at Max Protetch suggests this 61 year-old painterly existentialist is finally learning to relax. There is still plenty of fiddly awkwardness in the brushstrokes, and in their scale relation to the whole. But within Mr. Nozkowski’s consistently reigned-in format (the typical work, in linen stretched on panel, is around 22 inches by 28 inches), he is going for seductively legible compositions, bright colors in cheery relationships, crisp edges, and sumptuous bleeds. Showing his tender side, this notoriously “jolie-laide” painter is suddenly easy on the eye.

“Untitled (8–69)” (2005) — as of yet Mr. Nozkowski is no flirt in his titles — reads like an unfilled baroque ceiling. Protruding forms cling to the edges like arches, pinching into the central space, which is an allover dribbly wash. The eye is lured simultaneously into flat, precise delineations of the edge and the deep space of the center.

“Untitled (8-75)” (2005) has hard-edged vertical stripes in scorching violet, yellow, red, and orange against more typically dusty purple, pink, and blue. Here are reminders of the color-field abstraction against which the young Mr. Nozkowski rebelled with his belligerently small and pictorially involved compositions. But true to his subversive self, the stripes lean at odd angles, revealing shadow-like forms of jagged irregularity.

It is a hallmark of a Nozkowski show to avoid hallmarks. Instead of settling for the variations-on-a-theme format typical of solo exhibitions, the artist seems to have set himself the Herculean task of giving each painting a self-contained vocabulary. What lends the show consistency, preventing any hint of irony or diffidence, is a common sensibility. Like the old Nehru slogan, he goes for unity in diversity.

In the past, Mr. Nozkowski has tended to favor a figure-ground dynamic. If not quite figures, his shapes have exuded a sense of being personages standing out against a relatively neutral supporting space. This used to give his work a whiff of the vintage avant-garde, recalling mid-century Surrealists or abstract masters.

There is still a sense, in the new works’ scale and facture, that these are pictures rather than paintings, in that they engage the imagination instead of enveloping the gaze. But these days Mr. Nozkowski seems intent on frustrating a neat figure-ground relationship, even in those paintings where this is most preserved.

In “Untitled (8–76)” (2005), balls in varying sizes trap sack-like shapes in light shades of mustard, chatreuse, and moss; this net-like constellation stands out against a molten ground of fiery red fizzling out into a golden horizon. In “Untitled (8-67)” (2005), the biomorph that floats, off-center, against the acqueous plaid ground is composed of a cluster of discrete, testicular forms. These individual elements break down a sense of the figure as a single form: They are emphatically painted in crisp colors and even, thick paint towards the shape’s center, but loosen towards transparency at its edges.

Some new works, however, share a fascination with the grid that goes back to the origins both of abstraction and of the artist’s career. “Untitled (8–77)” (2005) epitomizes the magical dualism of Mr. Nozkowski’s compositional approach. Approximately 18 inches high by 22 wide, it is a grid of little black squares against white. Dots at the top and left side of the composition give way to larger squares, rectangles and, in the lower right corner, a sequence of colored squares. It is a simple idea subverted to yield complexity; a field that coalesces into a cogent form; a digital, reductive system that transforms into a hieroglyph, which is turns pulsates with a personal touch redolent of handwriting.

Tony Berlant Within 2005 metal collage on wood, 36 x 48 inches  Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, inc.
Tony Berlant Within 2005 metal collage on wood, 36 x 48 inches Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, inc.

Tony Berlant’s collages are bizarre and exhilarating. Just when you start to tire of their fastidious craft or grow suspicious of their seemingly gratuitous overload, they come back at you with their range of expression and depth of intrigue. The craft turns back into art again.

Mr. Berlant works in cutout shards of printed tin that he puts together with mind-boggling ease. His materials are fastened to their plywood support with steel brads that stud the surfaces.  This constitutesa kind of pointillism that adds further texture and alloverness to what was already a dense, complex picture plane. He is attracted to forms in nature that parallel his art practice: scales, plumage, bark, blades.

“Anytime” (2005) is a dense, symbolist landscape at the heart of which gorgeous, sickly fluctuations of purple and ochre intimate a desert terrain. In some spots, the actual representations in the appropriated tin are used to pictorial effect — grass for instance, in the lower part of the composition — while at others they just become texture and color, like the glaring orange strips shaped into individual blades of grass at the top. This results in bewildering oscillations in scale.

Here are shades of Max Ernst’s collage novels cut from Victorian illustrated books and scientific manuals, but Mr. Berlant’s pieces lack the Surrealist’s penchant for juxtapositional metaphor. Similarly, thoughts of Fred Tomasselli’s acid trip overloads quickly recede: Less sensational and iconic, Mr. Bertant’s lyrical, complex forms sustain attention precisely because of their rich, complex nebulousness.

The studs have complex associations: They are at once like stars and the nails in an African fetish. Just like his collage materials — which make you aware of actual stuff on a flat surface, and open up strange vistas into mysterious inner spaces — they simultaneously ground and etherealize.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, February 23, 2006