H5n1 flu over the cuckoo’s nest
Atelier Paul Kolker
October 16–December 12, 2006
Flu season is upon us—even in Chelsea, where the exhibition H5n1 flu over the cuckoo’s nest at Atelier Paul Kolker pokes fun at our annual free-ranging, collective fear of avian influenza, the notorious, but not-yet-transmissible-among-humans, virus that could spark a global epidemic larger than that of 1918, which killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. The problem with H5n1 is that although scientists know that the virus will morph into new variants, they just don’t know when, or arguably, if the virus will become widely dangerous to humans. How apropos then for Kolker to offer up as his exhibition’s centerpiece a painting of Jack Nicholson as Randle in the 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With this painting evoking Randle’s emotional coin of impudence and despair, the exhibition’s tone is set.
Among Kolker’s 12 other paintings are a rendering of a film still from Hitchcock’s The Birds, a portrait of Hitchcock himself, various depictions of birds including a cuckoo and a rooster, and an evocation of the ubiquitous New York City pigeon by way of droppings under the defunct High Line railway. The birds denote sources of a potential avian influenza epidemic in the United States, while the Hitchcock imagery invokes the suspense built in to the real-life story of bird flu. Other paintings include an electron micrograph image of the H5n1 flu virus and two mirroring, ten-foot-tall paintings of Tamiflu capsules, the anti-viral medication touted as the most effective against the illness in humans.
The paintings themselves, while suggestive of our relative powerlessness in the face of uncontrollable possibilities—epidemics and other natural disasters, acts of terrorism, global ecological decay—follow a rigid set of rules. Using an invented method called “fracolor,” all the paintings are comprised of combinations of 33-inch-square canvases. Each canvas contains a grid of 1089 dots, painted in accordance with a computer-fractionated image. This creates the look of an enlarged, pixilated image in paint. What’s more, only red, blue, yellow and green, plus black and white, are permitted. With the recent exception of tones created by the addition of either black or white, the colors are never mixed. This is a coloristic primitivism rare in contemporary art.
Yet it works. The man behind the system, Paul Kolker, has been evolving his fracolor method for nearly 35 years. A thoracic surgeon as well as a painter, Kolker has stepped up his production over the past five years. In 2001 he opened an atelier and hired a staff.
Today his four young art school graduate employees—Becca Baldwin, Rachel Leitman, Jeff Kessel and Kevin McGuinness—paint canvases as he specifies Mondays through Fridays, and provide feedback on the themes he proposes. Every two months or so, the exhibitions mounted in the atelier space change.
Kolker’s evolution as an artist is promising. The paintings are increasingly sophisticated aesthetically as well as intellectually stimulating. Science underpins many aspects of the work, from its painstaking methodology to its themes—a 2005 body of work features still lifes of surgical equipment; many of the portraits in an upcoming show are of scientists. Even the coloristic primitivism unwittingly mimics biological imaging. In a large work in the current exhibition called “Dripcaustic 65,340,” a drip painting refracted through Kolker’s fracolor lens resembles a gene array—the mapping of which genes in a given organism are turned on under specific conditions.
Time will tell what Kolker’s salon-style enterprise brings; one possibility is that his canvases will find themselves under the art world’s microscope and some deserved curatorial scrutiny.
Lynn Love, who began her writing and editing career at the media arts monthly, Afterimage, writes about science, the arts and culture as a freelancer in New York City.