Not Another Retread 

Nozkowski's deliberately benign abstractions demonstrate a paradox.

Untitled (Q-15) by Thomas Nozkowski
Some weeks ago at an art opening, artist and retired educator Larry Edwards, with trademark bluntness and comic panache, almost fell over when I casually esteemed a painter's work as both confident and risk-taking. "Ah, c'mon," Edwards groaned. The artist's pictures, obvious cousins to Bay Area figurative and abstract expressionism, were "academic," he said, insisting that there are so many wanna-be-Diebenkorns out there to have become a cliché.

Being someone who looks at way too many art-world retreads, I can appreciate Edwards' criticisms and candor, and it is certainly difficult for a professor or critic not to become callous to the onslaught of second-rate Picassos, Duchamps, and Basquiats. Then again, if originality is the measure of an artist's substance, what exactly in painting hasn't been broached? Why paint at all? But whenever I find myself too dismissive of the familiar or conventional, invariably something comes along to catch me off guard. Thomas Nozkowski, whose work is on view at Rhodes College's Clough-Hanson Gallery, is breathing new life into a genre that is routinely pronounced spent by liberating it from the encumbrances of art history or any pretense to originality.

Nozkowski's show consists of easel-size paintings that are seemingly in tune with old-school inclinations, where complex biomorphic shapes imply spatial ambiguities similar to Jean Arp's reliefs, as in Untitled (Q-7), or affect a Philip Guston-ish cartoon, as in Untitled (Q-10). The work maintains an ease that is derived from the simple acknowledgment of painting's past, particularly of modernism, while not really feeling the need to court it, to be ironic about it, or to otherwise be critical of it. But the pictures are not merely recursive either. The unceremonious and ambivalent attitude toward art history serves to dispense with the idea of originality straightaway so as to concentrate on the heuristic routine of resolving a painting. In this regard, Nozkowski swings from one familiar motif to the next, producing images that are both obstinately banal and consciously dispassionate.

During a 2001 interview with painter Gerhard Richter, whose entire oeuvre seems to be a meditation on the disputed validity of painting, Robert Storr asked about Richter's decision to paint from photographs as a method to remain neutral, to avoid a singular style, and to maintain the freedom to paint disparate subjects. "It was the opposite of ideology," said Richter, "and to be as objective as possible offered a legitimization for painting since you were being objective and doing what was necessary, enlightening, and so on." Nozkowski (and curator Hamlett Dobbins) minimizes theory too in favor of the modest endeavor of painting one discrete picture after another, typified by his remark that "every painting is a way of learning to say one thing clearly."

In an essay written for the exhibit, Dobbins sums up Nozkowski's method by emphasizing his force of intention and the pursuit of pictorial "rightness." "When an image isn't realized, the slate is scraped or wiped down; there is a correcting and editing of what came before, and as time passes, more moments are realized. Elaborations are made and images are revealed," writes Dobbins. The pictures retain ghosts of previous layers, murky stains, scars, and little imperfections from excessive handling and countless revisions, giving them the quality of a relic.

The first grievance anyone usually has with abstract painting these days is that plying such territory amounts to navel-gazing formalism -- patently regressive and content to trifle with aesthetic arguments that have long been settled. Matters are, of course, not that cut-and-dried, and Dobbins, an abstract painter himself, is certainly attuned to the way that picture-making is first and foremost an idiosyncratic enterprise and that the subtle iterations in the studio are wedded to the fluctuations of daily life. "The artist's view can give and sway, the same way recollections of a time or place can be altered by a heavy lunch, the rattle of the subway, the thickness of the hot Memphis air," according to Dobbins. The more confessional Richter asserted that "the notion of neutrality and objectivity is an illusion" since "every painting includes my inability, my powerlessness things that are subjective." Richter further maintained that it is precisely that subjective quotient which thus reckons the works "legitimate to be painted."

If that remark is in diametric opposition to his prior quotation, it is only classic Richter to make contradictory statements to interviewers, to feign ignorance, or to just be reticent to articulate much at all, which ironically only foments the very intellectual and aesthetic suppositions about his work among the ideologues from whom he ostensibly cowers. A similar, if more subtle, paradox holds true for Nozkowski's noncommittal swagger. In an art world that is widely characterized as being in a posthistorical condition -- i.e., all genres of art are retreads, ultimately -- brassy ambivalence is just another polemic.

Through December 11th.

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