For his show at Nathalie Karg Gallery, which opened last night, artist Alex Kwartler presents two diverging series of large-scale works made over the last year. Five paintings awash in vibrant shades of fresco paint and finished with a glossy sheen are pitched against six stark white canvases, which are punctuated by black dashes coalescing into a figure. Titled “A Superficial Lyric,” the exhibition spotlights the shallowest visible level of the art.
“I wanted to use the word ‘superficial’ to point towards the surface,” says Kwartler, who studied painting at Cooper Union. “‘Superficial’ in a literal meaning–relating to the surface, how we read the surface and the time it takes to make assumptions based on surface.”
Because fresco paint dries almost immediately, Kwartler had to make the colored paintings in quick swoops of his paintbrush, leaving a brush mark similar to James Nares’s oil-on-linen works and a meditative effect reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s Color Field compositions. On top of that is a highly reflective finish. “It’s shiny so you’re getting a little bit of a reflection of yourself in the space,” he explains. “There is a weird perceptual back-and-forth where you’re looking at the painting, but you’re seeing yourself, someone behind you, or the space.”
The black-and-white series took a conversely studied approach. Based on a small ink sketch by Kwartler, each is an attempt at replicating the original drawing at eight feet tall in vinyl paint. The finish is matte. Rather than chance reflections, the discovery for viewers comes with subjectively realizing the figure within the marks. “Some people see him walking, a figure in rain. Other people can’t see the figure at first,” says the artist. “It’s deliberately super vague…The more projection the better. I don’t want it to be too deterministic.”
In the gallery, the two sets alternate unevenly. Four black-and-white works hang close together, calling attention to subtle irregularities resulting from the reproduction process. Colored paintings are spaced farther apart, giving the expansive array of lush tones room to breathe. Surging brush marks feel especially fluid next to controlled black lines. Both series evolved from spontaneous gesture at separate stages, but, as Kwartler says, “in the end there’s a level of finish that freezes that spontaneity.”
“ALEX KWARTLER: A SUPERFICIAL LYRIC” IS ON VIEW AT NATHALIE KARG GALLERY FROM OCTOBER 15 TO NOVEMBER 26, 2014.