In his current show at Max Protech gallery, as in his career to date, Thomas Nozkowski demonstrates an absolute commitment to easel painting. All the paintings on view this month are less than 30 inches to a side. This sort of consistency is remarkable today when it is common to find painters making sculpture, sculptors making video and video artists making whatever they want. Nozkowski has stuck to his guns. He has not given in to the postmodern multimedia push. He has not, to my knowledge, shaped his stretcher bars or made giant paintings, worked with enamel paint or hung a painting anywhere but around eye level. Nor has he chosen, within the paintings themselves, to confine himself to immediately identifiable motifs. Though he limits the dimensions of his canvas, Nozkoski sets no boundaries for painting.
There are paintings in this show that recall Paul Klee and others that have a hint of artists as diverse as Forrest Bess and Victor Vasarely. There’s one that makes me think of Hundertwasser and another that evokes the painter-critic Patrick Heron. One alluringly simple piece with diminutive wisps of off-white color embedded in a deep ultramarine ground combines the best of O’Keeffe with the mighty Jean Arp. The variety seems endless. One moment you think he is defining form against a void then he pushes all his forms to the painting’s borders and highlights the void itself. You might think he’s dealing with high key color then he gives you a painting in shades of gray.
The chance advantages of experimentation are accompanied by concomitant anxiety. This is a stress Nozkowski appears willing to endure. Some of the paintings in the show are not as strong as others. Among the more muted paintings, some fall a little flat. One of the more colorful paintings seems too comfortable in its own skin, too little involved with the search for original form in which Nozkowski excels. But these moments seem less like lapses in critical rigor, more like consequences of a restless spirit. An artist’s ethic is determined by their choice of what makes it to exhibition. Nozkowski’s successes would be harder to understand without his failures to accompany them.
An artist today must do more than simply make things. It would be nice, of course, to churn out work and exhibit it as a pure, and therefore valid, expression of your most immediate impulses. But it is not enough, though it is important, merely to yell, “Here I am!” An artist must additionally yell, “This is what I mean!” Artists must represent something. They must stand for something beyond a success story or a market value. Tom Nozkowski does this. Through and through, his work bespeaks a faith in unadorned painting to communicate the immanent reality of a richly imagined and complex world. He validates our love for painting by showing that it has every bit as much to offer as we had hoped.
ContributorBen La Rocco