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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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MAY 2015 Issue


As the poet John Ashbery once said: “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.” Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings may not be any more reckless than their construction is unlabored, but they acknowledge the primacy of a visual equivalence to our ability to grasp moments from the dispassionate and chaotic world in which we live and to which we respond by making something that is shared with others. The paintings now on view at Pace are representational in that they represent memory that is both lost and found; the mutations involved in the process of their pictorial construction records as much as it removes. While aspects of any given painting might originate in the “real world” and are consequently embedded in the image, these aspects can only exist at the behest of new formal realities that turn out to have contingencies of their own. The possibility for reconfiguring the fragments from lived experience multiplies, as is seen in this exhibition, when compositions are put through a range of different media and variations.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (9 – 42)” (2014). Oil on linen on panel, 22 × 28 ̋. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.
On View
Pace Gallery
March 27 – April 25, 2015
New York

Take, for example, “Untitled (9–46),” (2014), oil on linen on panel, 22 × 28 inches, “Untitled (L–24),” (2014), oil on paper, 22 × 30 inches and “Untitled (MH–36),” (2014), ink, gouache, crayon, graphite, colored pencil and collage on paper, 11 × 14 inches—three works displayed next to one another. Each work registers its difference against shared elements of structure that are variously reversed—the lattice present in all three works is black in the drawing and the oil on panel, and white in the oil on paper—or reinvented within a circumscribed limit. A central vertical sequence of color seen in all three images varies from work to work. In each case, a sequence or stack of primary and tertiary colors trace a tumbling movement between top and bottom edge. In “Untitled (L–24)” the segments between the lattices are not horizontally striated as in “Untitled (9–46)” and “Untitled (MH – 36)” while also varying in color. “Untitled (L–24)” recalls patterns found in Islamic mosaic or tile—the tessellations across the surface both rhythmic and meditative. Stasis is denied as the painting folds both inward and outward. We are drawn into the experience of perceiving, rather than invited to contain it.

Nozkowski’s repetition and growth principles are decorative, mathematical, botanical, or possibly all of these simultaneously. The paintings are built—every square inch activated by short brush strokes and runnels that drive or transfer paint this way and that—constructed without any unnecessary work. While there is complexity there is also a desire for economy; Nozkowski achieves a pragmatic and clear-eyed exploration of the paradoxes and mysteries that the paintings present. The figure and ground relation of the compositions often seem to find the figure “standing” on the bottom edge. The motif of “Untitled (9–42)” (2014) appears to grow and orient itself in this way: it looks like a bowl of flowers where the bowl has become the flowers, the orbs of blue and dark violet like water seen through shaped glass, the green, yellow, and earth red like stalks or expanding unfurling leaves, corm, or tuber. The dark violet of the orbs could also imply a kind of centrifugal exploded view that only partially matches, and in doing so contradicts and complicates, any rational reading of space within the painting. Here, background and foreground are disjunctive, establishing a dynamic pictorial space where events and situations are a visual analogue for a non-Cartesian real world, a world that is not objectifiable and yet a tangible experience.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (9 – 46)” (2014). Oil on linen on panel, 22 × 28 ̋. Courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Whatever the actual source material for a painting, it retains its independence. Nature (things observed) and artifice (pictorial invention) are not distinct; rather, they rely on each other vis-à-vis our capacities to navigate them. Whether something is literally transposed or not is deliberately unclear. The question is, what is it that we are looking at when we look at a painting? The narrative drive Nozkowski needs in order to work, and continue with commitment, represents a necessity—though a definitive exegesis of this narrative is neither desired nor required.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

All Issues