Sunday, November 21st, 2010

The Model Abstraction for Our Times: Thomas Nozkowski at Pace

Thomas Nozkowski at The Pace Gallery

October 22 to December 4, 2010
510 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 255 4044

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-134), 2010  Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28  inches. The Pace Gallery

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-134), 2010 Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. The Pace Gallery

In Thomas Nozkowski’s studio, a Socratic dialogue continually unfolds between drawing and painting, which his current show at Pace for the first time puts front and center – or rather, to David Cohen’s vigorous displeasure, side by side.  (See Ground Control to Major Tom: Please re-hang your show.)  For a dissenting view – apropos the hang at least –  please read on.

Cohen is eloquent with praise for the drawings and paintings in themselves, and about that all “besotted consumers” of this terrific body of work will agree.  Each Nozkowski, here and always, is a precise, luminous clearing in the vast wilderness surrounding ideology and formula.  Suspicious of systems, defiant in its modesty, Nozkowski’s might be the model abstraction for our times.  In the current show, Cohen is right to argue that he is at the top of his game, setting off color vibrations in painting after painting like musical tones in resonant chambers.

A 2006 exhibition at BravinLee gave a glimpse of Nozkowski’s terms on paper: they might be that much more imaginative, dangerous and thrilling.  Where the canvasses often rely on narcotic textures and warm, concentric afterglow to settle hostilities between figure and ground, the drawings’ dynamics are, in a way, harder won.  On view at Pace are two new species of works on paper.  Premised on the paintings, they are distinct from the fully independent drawings shown in 2006.  (At first, this dictatorship of premises seems un-Nozkowski-like, but the sustaining paradox of his practice might be exactly this: that the proscription of systems is just another system.)  One new way of working is hung on a wall in the back room in a large array with no weak link.  Each of these oils on paper arose from a forked moment; when an incident that Nozkowski liked on canvas had to go, he rebuilt it, bringing it to fruition in an alternate universe.

The second new practice takes off from the paintings’ conclusions (rather than their momentary confusions).  Using ink and colored pencil on canvas-textured paper, Nozkowski retraces, more or less, the salient formal properties put in play in each oil painting.  It is the provocative hanging of these drawings directly beside their prototypes that so irks Cohen.

What the pairings do is tease out a stereo view of the boundaries between Nozkowski’s linguistic building blocks.  Blobs and polygons change outline, color, texture and proportion, but by and large they retain their topological, and thus their psychological, identity.  Nozkowski translates, for example, the light bulb shape against a vivisected red grid of the painting Untitled (8-117) into the drawing Untitled (N-30) as if rendering a French poem into English.  Nouns and verbs must be rearranged, and idioms reimagined, but basic denotation corresponds.

On canvas, the bulb is surrounded by a dry but painterly gray halo, exquisite in its translucence.  Within, you can see how the fracturing red background lattice evolves from the halo’s blinking internal structure.  In the drawing, Nozkowski knows to knit lattice and halo together from the start, structural revelation taking a backseat to the problem of how to render the halo’s shallow depths with loose cross-hatching.  Cohen finds this sort of contained technical challenge distracting, at odds with Nozkowski’s core values of polymorphous mutation.  Indeed, the bulb-halo-lattice shorthand used here would ordinarily be dangerous, since Nozkowski’s resistant images rarely settle for specificity of that kind, certainly not parody or quotation.  But in this insistent pairing, the drawing intensifies a literal reading by transforming the painting’s vertical red zip of a “filament” into a cartoonishly crumpled, “burnt-out” one.

Allowing a bit more of a view into the psychic sources of his forms is an intriguing gambit for Nozkowski, consistent with his contrarian stance.  Real world subject matter, along with the uncanny animation and diagrammatic potency of the cartoon, do lurk in the least suggestive of these works, as a stratagem against formalist rhetoric.  In this regard, Nozkowski’s long employment as a production manager at the legendary birthplace of stylistic chameleonism in comics, Mad Magazine, is sometimes cautiously mentioned.  However, the spatial puns and hazy, gradient backdrops that typically set off foreground activity in Nozkowski’s work, as in Untitled (8-130) or Untitled (8-137), suggest, if anything, more of an engagement with the metaphysical cartooning of Steinberg and Folon, by way of Klee.  Being a spy in the house of Mad might have left its mark, nevertheless, in workaday exposure to the Usual Gang of Idiots.  Might other painters doing battle with, and by means of, the cartoon, from Joyce Pensato to Caroll Dunham, hold cartoonists more in awe – as cultural magicians rather than versatile deadline professionals?

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (N-26), 2010, Ink, colored pencil, oil and  crayon on paper, 8 5/8 x 9-13/16" inches.  The Pace Gallery

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (N-26), 2010, Ink, colored pencil, oil and crayon on paper, 8 5/8 x 9-13/16" inches. The Pace Gallery

Art sources of all kinds are grist for Nozkowski’s democratizing mill.  Dunham’s cutout, man-in-the-mountain gunslingers haunt certain geometric profiles, and James Siena seems acknowledged in the circuit-board labyrinth of Untitled (8-123).  Paul Klee, above all, infuses Nozkowski’s soft color grids, which are so charged with poetic voltage that they slowly inflate to cosmic, archetypal scale.  And in Untitled (8-134), among the most heartbreakingly beautiful paintings in the show, buoyant speech balloons assemble into a melancholic monster out of an animation by Hayao Miyazaki.

This riled-up underwater spirit abides in a wet, thin membrane of close values in osmotic equilibrium and chromatic pulsation.  The after-drawing, this time, is purposefully different.  Here we have strong light and shadow, and the speech-balloon creature is radial, rather than bilateral – perhaps in its spore phase.  Life, like Nozkowski’s flourishing studio practice, has many generative strategies.

  • Elliott Green

    Thank you for the pleasure–this is a really intelligent and well-written review of one of the greatest painters of our time.