Contributed by Adam Simon / I almost decided not to write about Paul Pagk’s first solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu on the Lower East Side after reading Raphael Rubinstein’s eloquent press statement. Rubinstein articulated so much of what struck me about the exhibition that I wondered what I could add. One thing Rubinstein alludes to but doesn’t explore in depth is the chasm that separates an initial glance at a Pagk painting from longer consideration of his work in person. For viewers not attuned to the ways painters glean meaning from forms and materials, these paintings might appear overly reductive, mere diagrams on fields of monochrome. You tend to take in a Pagk canvas quickly, as a one-to-one relationship of image to ground without a lot of interacting parts. It’s easy to miss the many ways in which his false starts, reiterations, miscues, and reworkings belie his apparent minimalism and austerity.
I happened to see Pagk’s show on the same day that I saw Katherine Bernhardt’s exhibition across town at Canada. It’s interesting to see how two painters, both masters of their craft who love paint as a medium of signification, embrace such different approaches to engaging the viewer. Bernhardt mixes high and low culture. The viewer feels acknowledged, even if that acknowledgement comes in the form of being mooned by Bart Simpson. Pagk’s diagrams, by contrast, are almost the opposite of a hook. A documentary on the history of diagrams will never screen on Netflix. The paintings seem to reflect his own dialogue with the work, irrespective of any viewer. The kind of direct address that Bernhardt offers – a strategy that I’ve used in my own work – now seems more familiar despite its iconoclasm. Pagk gives us something we don’t see as often anymore. It used to be referred to as pure painting, a term that embodies the idea of paintings as objects of contemplation.
The exhibition consists of 12 large-scale paintings and 13 works on paper. The works on paper indulge a wider range of mark-making and happenstance than do the paintings. They are dramatically offhand, often situated at the edge of the paper, and don’t feel like studies for larger works but rather like flights of fancy, aha moments.
The paintings are large, several either square or almost square. They seem disconnected from things in the world – not landscape, not portrait – which adds to a sense of immutability. To the extent that something is depicted, these are diagrams, but not of anything specific. Yet the choice of the diagram motif feels purposeful. Diagrams are a way of transferring information; they suggest a usefulness, an action to be taken, an aid to construction. In Pagk’s case, they can serve as a kind of clue. They invite deciphering. As normally understood, a diagram consists of straight, simple lines. But in Pagk’s painted lines there are multiple instances of unexpected color shifts and loose brushwork and there are also paintings in which the lines are predominantly straight and uniform in color. The decisions appear whimsical, more likely they are driven by the demands of each painting at a given moment in its development. The degree of looseness, in terms of both color and brushwork, feels calibrated to simultaneously affirm and undermine the diagram. The diagram motif can accommodate both impulses. Constraints become possibilities.
I found myself examining the surface of each painting. Pagk makes his own oil paint. Perhaps it includes wax. In any case, Pagk’s paint is slow and clotted, uniform without being smooth. Its unevenness reflects pinpoints of light and covers the surface with geologic insistence. One senses the painting’s history, not through any visible residual marks under the final layer but from what I assume to be an accumulation of countless invisible brush strokes. It’s not hard to project a feeling of intimacy onto these inert substances, the kind that develops through repetition over time.
An initial glance at Embodiment suggests a grey field of color in which white lines describe two versions of a form that hinges off the left edge. In one of the two forms, yellow paint fills a large area the way a child might fill in between the lines of a coloring book. In the same way that one’s eyes adjust to darkness, it takes a while to see all the different greys that Pagk uses to articulate the field. This experience of the viewer shifting from an initial simplification to an awareness of complexity is available throughout the show. And yet, it is easy to miss. In In the City, it takes only a moment to see the white halos around the red lines that traverse a grey-greenish field, but somewhat longer to make out shapes that pop, alternately projecting out and receding, Escher-like, the space shifting continuously along the axes of the diagonals. A similar strategy is apparent in Refraction, in which diagonals suggest deep space that is contradicted in several different ways; ultimately, the picture plane is reaffirmed in a continuous dance between flatness and illusion. In La Notte and Mellow Yellow, we don’t at first see the changes in color and brushwork within what appears as a uniform field of color covering the canvas edge to edge. In part this is because the changes often occur on either side of a line, inside or outside of a form, which effectively camouflages the overall shift. Nevertheless, the shift is there. How it reveals itself is one of the factors determining the time frame of these paintings.
There is an inherent drama to the apparently tranquil or static surface that yields hidden aspects of itself. In narrative forms like film, this might be a snake in the grass or a shark under water. In abstract paintings like Pagk’s, it is more likely to occur when something appearing as singular reveals itself to be a multiplicity.
“Paul Pagk,” Miguel Abreu Gallery, 88 Eldridge Street, New York, NY. Through March 5, 2023.