What can contemporary abstract painting tell us about the medium today, and why does it continue to stir the soul? To answer these questions, artist Kara Rooney, the curator of Material Tak at Panepinto Galleries, selected five painters who range in age, professional experience and formal approach. Artists include Mark Dagely, Kati Vilim, Jsun Laliberte, Peter Fox and Anne Sherwood Pundyk. The result is an invigorating exhibition, with some knockout paintings. I did not want to leave the gallery and I cannot remember the last time I had that feeling.
Before I discuss the show, I want to share an anecdote. As a kid in suburban Jersey, I loved visiting my relatives in Jersey City. I did not so much love my relatives, as I loved the drive. The NJ Turnpike was our route. There was so much to see and look at from the backseat and passenger-side window of my parent’s Dodge Dart — chemical refineries, smokestacks billowing toxic plumes, Newark Airport, freight trains covered in graffiti, cargo cranes, the Twin Towers rising from the Manhattan skyline and lights, so many flashing lights. This experience — a smorgasbord of visual sensations — was so at odds with my usual surroundings: the planned residential housing developments, bland, uniform, cookie-cutter. The only word that I can think of to describe my experience is invigorating.
Kara Rooney deserves special commendation for organizing this thoughtful exhibition. The gallery, whose floor is as flat as Vermont’s Green Mountains, is not an ideal venue to install two-dimensonal paintings. In addition, its massive concrete columns interrupt sight lines. In spite of these logistical challenges, or maybe because of them, Rooney made the venue serve the work. She does not isolate the individual artists to separate wall space, but hangs their work side by side, in shared space. The decision to pair the artists’ works allows for thoughtful comparison and reflection.
The most dynamic pairing in the show is between Vilim and Fox. At first glance, I did not think Vilim’s “3D-2D” (2011) and Fox’s “Loaner” (2011) had much in common. “3D-2D” resembles the arcade game Q*bert from the early eighties, with its funky isometric shapes. “Loaner,” in contrast, looks like LSD-tinged syrup. Vilim works in the vein of Russian Constructivism, painting flat, vibrant geometric shapes, which seem to float as much as sizzle on the picture pane. Fox, on the other hand, uses a pipette to dispense controlled bursts of color onto the canvas. From afar, the droplets form a shimmering field of light and color. On closer inspection, each buttery droplet feels like a universe unto itself. The hand of the artist unites these two painters. Neither Vilim nor Fox rely on masking. Both artists have a penchant for bright colors, which they mix and match on the palette before a single mark is made.
Dagley, a Jersey City resident, uses the familiar standards of geometric painting and super-graphics — dots, stripes, sine curves and systematic progressions. His suite of four paintings — celestial orbs, which read like the eyes of God, hover in a phosphorescent ether — claims an entire wall. The gallery, which is 3,500 square feet, is an ideal venue to contemplate his work. Rooney’s adept use of lighting allows the dayglow paint beneath a series of efferent black stripes to shine. A similar aura of atmospheric color can be found in many of the paintings on view, in particular Fox’s shimmering teardrops.
Both Pundyk and Laliberte have strong ties to American postwar abstraction. Their all-over loosey-goosey action painting is as expansive as it is playful. Pundyk is not solely interested in smearing paint — soft, velvety, and creamy — across canvases. She painted a bright flat rectangle directly to the wall, which encloses her suite of gestural paintings in a field of orange and yellow paint. The effect is stunning. Laliberte’s “Untitled: 371,” a giant canvas more than 15-feet wide, wields impressive passages of paint. But what I am most interested in is the incorporation of hardedge geometric shapes onto the languid smears, gestures and pools of paint. I look forward to seeing where Laliberte takes this new route.
I really appreciated the fact that the curator did NOT rely on a standard height to hang the work. Forgoing a specific standard seemed to allow the work to flow easily from one to the next, despite how superficially they differed. In one section, Rooney installed two paintings by Vilim, just inches from the ground. Alongside this diptych, she placed Fox’s giant drip painting at a different height. This pairing was odd, but it worked. And, as a result, I did not take the work for granted. It kind of shook me awake. Made me take note — this is not an everyday exhibition. As I walked out of the gallery, I thought of the beautiful game, and Spain’s recent triumph in Euro 2012. Spain’s national soccer team plays free-flowing football. Despite their embarrassment of individual geniuses, or maybe because of them, they play as a harmonious team and crush every opponent they face.
This exhibition confirms the fact that painting is alive, well and thriving. So far, this is the show of the summer to see in my opinion. Go if you can.
Material Tak continues at Panepinto Galleries (371 Warren Street in Jersey City, New Jersey) until July 15.