Letter from New York: Inheritance and Potential
~ Brett Baker
After an autumn spent in the studio and with less time for gallery-going, I have recently been reflecting on several surprising shows from the past summer. The more mainstream of these included Josef Albers’ painterly studies at the Morgan Library, rarely seen works by Jan Müller at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, and an exhibition of Vuillard paintings at the Jewish Museum. Another intriguing show of paintings, encountered on a trip downtown, was by David Paulson, an artist previously unknown to me, but whose work had piqued my curiosity online.
Paulson’s works were on view at Jonathan Burden,LLC, a Tribeca decorative arts and antique gallery dense with chairs, tables, lamps, and mirrrors – quite in contrast to the typical “white cube” gallery. Wending one’s way on narrow paths through the space, one feels a strong sense of the past paired with an ominous feeling some heavy object may come crashing down. The history in these surroundings was more than matched by Paulson’s works which embrace both painting’s history and the process of its making.
“Process-based” painting has become more or less synonymous with abstract paintings that take the performative aspect of applying paint and its outcomes as their subject. Paulson’s paintings, filled with nude figures whose stature is reminiscent of classical sculptures (he is a sculptor as well,) hardly typify a “process-based” approach. Material is their method, but not their subject; Paulson seeks a pictorial, compositional energy.
Although their limbs and features are distorted, there is a lingering feeling that Paulson’s figures are somehow distant descendants of Michaelangelo’s Lacöon or perhaps a baroque lineage that includes Rubens’ Prometheus. Indeed, Paulson seems to start with such influences and then test them against the subsequent history of painting. El Greco’s elongations, Goya’s frankness, Picasso’s cubist fracturing, and de Kooning’s gestural exuberance are all in play here. Even high modernism lurks as Paulson tests his figures relentlessly, slamming their torqued musculature flat against the grid. Constantly built, torn apart, adjusted, and reassembled, the validity of these figures is always in question – yet, in the end, they always prove themselves worthy of the painting. The result of these pictorial trials is that Paulson’s paintings feel as if they might tear themselves from the walls. They are flickering and alive.
Although Paulson’s drawing grips and torques his figures, he injects fragility into the paintings through color. In Bathers (2012) and Conversation (2012), the viscous, slathered paint froths with gestural energy, yet simultaneously achieves a cold translucence, resembling an x-ray film made of paint. In the body of one bather, translucent in the greens and blues, her spine bows as though forced toward the ground – emotional response and pictorial necessity intertwined.
Paulson’s paintings are terrifying and relentless inquisitions of painting itself, and it’s exhilarating to see a painter take on the world in all its lurid complications rather than settle for arid simplicities. For all their complexity, these paintings eventually exhaust (and thus transcend) their influences. We are left with paintings that enact Herman Hesse’s assertion that “every ego, so far from being a unity, is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.” David Paulson’s paintings embrace both inheritance and potential, and in doing so they evoke a complex, molten world of states and stages where figures become avatars for the process of painting.