THOMAS ERBEN | JUNE 14 – JULY 27, 2001
A Norwegian painter who has shown in the U.S. and Norway, Thomas Pihl’s first solo exhibition in New York contains 12 untitled paintings. His work calls to mind Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and other painters of the late ‘60s who were championed by Clement Greenberg and sought to reduce painting to its essence, namely surface and color. Demanding the viewer’s time, Pihl’s work is unapologetically contemplative. Working on the floor and carefully supporting the canvas to attain a perfectly smooth paint application, Pihl glazes his canvas with layers of acrylic paint, which are toned down with hefty portions of acrylic medium. Through as many as 12 layers of paint, he achieves a waxy, translucent, smooth surface with exceptionally subtle variations of color—so subtle that photographs of the paintings cannot capture these soft, organic transitions. In one piece, the edges are a faint violet, which transitions closer to white towards the center of the canvas. In another, the colors shift from a yellow ocher at the center to an olive-drab on the margins.
To visually frame his paintings, Pihl allows the darker, less translucent underlayers of paint to show through at the margins. The paintings’ surfaces are a smooth plastic—appearing to be manufactured by machine rather than painted by human hands. However, after closer examination, the perfect surface is revealed to contain blemishes. Tiny pits, hairline cracks, and even dust mar the entire surface of the painting. Though on first glance these artifacts are invisible and given enough distance remain invisible, they nonetheless contribute to two mutually opposed ways of seeing the paintings: as purified experiments in color and technique, and as a marred plastic surface, each embodying an individuality antithetical to manufactured fabrication.
These “mistakes” are intentional. Because of them, Pihl’s work is more than a display of color sensitivity: it is a critique on the simplistic notion of formal purity espoused by Greenberg and exemplified by Color Field patterns. Yet, these works speak too softly to be polemical. They contain the insidious side to purity in the form of pits and cracks—a blemished flip side uncovered when anything pure is subjected to scrutiny.