“A Dead Cactus Becomes an Abstract Painting”: Julian Kreimer at Lux Art Institute
Dispatch from Southern California
Julian Kreimer at the Lux Art Institute
January 24 to March 21, 2015
1550 S. El Camino Real
Encinitas, CA, 760 436 6611
I pulled onto a narrow dirt road in Encinitas, CA. This was not the entrance to the Lux Art Institute, and I was told later that it’s a common mistake. The wrong road took me to a private tennis court, surrounded by vintage cars and succulents. I turned around, trying to appear as if I wasn’t trespassing. A couple minutes later I parked on the neighboring hill. It was pretty suburban — not exactly what I picture when I hear the phrase “en plein air.”
Julian Kreimer paints outside and also in the studio. Some of these paintings are skillful observations of a tree or a building and some are abstract. Kreimer’s first West-Coast solo show, at Lux, is organized to articulate this. His vacillations between naturalism and abstraction present a dichotomy within painting that can sometimes sound dated, perhaps even comic to artists who don’t paint. While guiding me through the Lux grounds, Kreimer mentions that the abstractions developed within the context of technical color exercises. He likes to talk about exercises; his role as an educator of young painters sparks many tangential conversations and we talk about East- and West Coast art pedagogy.
Kreimer became an educator just after he had finished school himself. “A painting a day” is a common assignment. It’s a good exercise, he says. Students learn to observe and respond, to release overwrought thinking. They also learn, as if they need to be taught, about pleasure. There is the rush to replicate precarious color relationships as the light fades, as Kreimer also pursues in works such as South #1 (2015). Students learn the bliss of coercing suspended and mobilized pigments to resemble something in front of them; Kreimer’s satisfying single-stroke brambles in Turquoise Fence (2011) tackle this same problem. And of course they learn how the thrill of exhibitionist performance is fueled by a fear of getting caught. This is perfectly exemplified by the wobbly coral two-by-four ribcage of a school under construction depicted in Construction #4 (2015): yes, the artist was trespassing and yes, he did get caught.
But what if all this doesn’t add up to a good painting? Kreimer returns his unsuccessful surfaces to the studio and reworks them into abstractions. While searching for the remains of observations of a deciduous forest beneath scrapes, oversaturated pinks and yellows, and large imprecise swaths of studio-floor gray, I wonder again about the conceptual relationship between the two bodies of work. There is a marked difference in the paint handling; the landscapes have a viscous, sexy quality to them, speed to a climax, anxiety of completion. The abstractions embody a different kind of performance: time is embedded under scrubbing and methodical but casual horizontal brushstrokes. This group asks for patience and delivers the pleasure of excavating actions made in an indecipherable amount of time. Even the title of one of my favorites expresses this sentiment: Maybe Someday, Without Knowing It (2013), I continue the thought silently, “…you will find yourself committed to this painting.”
The gallery is dominated by mostly small paintings made on the grounds of the residency. Kreimer’s close-cropped images of prickly pear cactus piles steal the show, even among a salon-style wall arrangement of 20 or so gems. The green scraped cactus paddles are striking, with canvas tooth pricking through paint, and the gooey shadows surrounding them are just as good; my arms feel scratched up just looking at them. Kreimer shows me the cactus on the Lux grounds. It’s at the edge of the driveway, very unromantic. Each paddle eventually becomes hollow, brown webbing, the decayed matter providing the remaining cactus body some nourishment. I think about Kreimer’s dead, unsuccessful landscapes awaiting a palette knife in the studio.
Is routine exercise, such as making a painting each day, an attempt to escape narrative? By remaining in a state of constant practice, Kreimer draws out a narrative impulse within the viewer — what is he doing? In Our Claim to What Is (2013) a car in a forest could be an abandoned wreck or simply the artist’s transportation to a Thoreau-inspired walk. When given a little, it’s hard not to project. Perhaps it’s obvious to proclaim that each painting is a document of time and space within his experience, but these studious and delectable works seem to ask more from painting than they know how to communicate individually. Perhaps that is why they work so well compiled on one wall, like cactus paddles. Some artists find excuses to make paintings; Kreimer channels his questions through the medium.