On ViewGreene Naftali
November 16, 2021 – January 22, 2022
Michael Krebber opens this new show of paintings with a diary entry from Michael Oppitz: “as he rose / to the highest form of prose / a poem crossed his head / and suddenly his prose was dead.” It’s earnest as a press release, and it’s easy to conflate the writer’s struggle with that of the painter—Krebber’s brushstrokes occupying a thin line between deadpan and style, where any push in either direction risks killing the entire undertaking.
These eight paintings are in oil instead of Krebber’s usual acrylic, but a sense of straightforwardness still prevails in most of the canvases, which are composed of marks of predetermined thickness, usually matte, and clearly differentiated from the ground. Some of the paintings have predictable outcomes: fields of pigment brushed on thick with alternating angles like stucco, or sketchy outlines indicating some hurried attempt at representation. In one untitled painting, an avian form disrupts a wet-on-wet application of pink and white brushstrokes, as if the canvas’s center had been lifted with a rag then detailed with a fine brush. Importantly, the pink field stops short of the painting’s edges, so the whole picture is like a controlled quagmire. The neighboring canvases, a suite of three pale compositions on white, almost disintegrate in the bright winter sun.
The show is dominated by two monumental diptychs that reprise the same cartoonish motif on a shared wall. In a coy move, the left two canvases are spaced closer together than the right ones, and, taken as a whole, the four panels can read as a procession of decorative elements interpreted through self-conscious painterly devices. Brushstrokes hover between tentative and courageous, mimicking the misregistration of printmaking; they fall into jittery patterns like low resolution JPEGs, they continue unevenly across the break of canvases—in short, they work at dissecting particular modes of image-making. What is surprising, and feels a bit naïve to say, is that the left diptych, Doll in Pink (2021), is actually quite beautiful, while still functioning as a foil to the twinned canvases of La Poupée (2021).
While La Poupée seems almost a wholesale sampling of painterly techniques—washy fields of flat brushwork, tentative sketching, and thick outlining—Doll in Pink elides difference in favor of layers of regular brushstrokes, and the resulting picture seems hard-won, either an outlier or a departure from Krebber’s usual mode. It’s not that there’s any lack of the cool detachment displayed in his quicker canvases; it’s felt immediately in the matter-of-fact coloring of sections of canvas, about as precious as the chunky fields created by a failing highlighter on a block of text, and even more so in the dotted outlines the artist has scratched around certain shapes, as if to indicate the picture’s unfinishedness. But despite these markers of its own production, the painting manages to turn inward. It’s unlike those other pieces that seek out their context through performance of the very act of painting. Here, brushstrokes are a means to an end; they don’t simply declare “painting” but work at becoming it, and in their accumulation, achieve something melancholy and elegant.
In the many layers of Krebber’s irony, what stands out is the fact that liquid pigment is being coerced into lines to describe a picture made of lines, yet there is no sense of contour, or even of grid, to guide the construction of the image. The indeterminate brushstrokes seem to be ghostly redactions on top of a dark field, so each mark acts as a sort of canceling of depth. It is like gazing through venetian blinds at night, a view obscured by light from within, except Krebber’s slats are too churning and chaotic to exist within any architecture. Maybe it’s that resistance to context that is so appealing, quite unlike how the viewer could obliterate another picture through their own presence. I felt that while squinting at smaller paintings to discern white from off-white, realizing that my own cast shadow was the dominant image on the canvas.
Has poetry killed Krebber’s prose? I think it’s more accurate to say that Doll in Pink finds grace in the deadpan. That’s ironic in itself. But what about those ghostly and drippy forms? Plants and clouds worked to death and then erased just to the point of perfection. It’s no wonder his title reaches for a mass-produced object of comfort, one that takes on meaning through wear. It’s about the medium’s ability to turn constraints into affect. Maybe time is the difference here; if painting continues saying its name long enough perhaps it begins to embody itself, and to do so silently.