There are times in a painter’s development when progress is slow and incremental, and there are times when everything just pops. In Polyrhythm, Jason Karolak’s luminous solo show of abstract paintings at McKenzie Fine Art, everything just pops.
Not that his new work is unrelated to what came before — it definitely grows out of it — but in ways that are as richly mined as they are unpredictable. What is startling about Polyrhythm is how quickly the artist managed to synthesize two previous modes of working into a single stream that maintains an allegiance to high modernism while adulterating its alleged purity with infusions of sly humor and wild, fluorescent color.
I had the opportunity to visit Karolak’s studio a little over a year ago while writing a catalogue essay for a two-person exhibition (in which he was paired with conceptual sculptor Antoine Lefebvre) that was curated by Matthew Neil Gehring for the Flecker Gallery in Selden, New York. At that time he was employing distinctly different approaches for his small and large paintings.
When working on a larger scale, he would first paint the entire surface cadmium red and then cover that with a flat coat of ivory black. This created a uniform but active ground, over which he painted linear geometric shapes, usually a vertical stack of cubes. Over this he would lay down another stack, and then another, until the accretion of shapes became aggressive, unwieldy, even chaotic. Sometimes the shapes were wiped down or scraped off, leaving ghosts of the earlier forms and hints of red peeking through the scratched surface.
With his smaller paintings, Karolak would first create a field composed of a multicolored grid over which, as I wrote at the time, he would riff “on the pattern, layer upon layer, until anomalous shapes and movements emerge. Unlike the large paintings, which rush from deep space toward the viewer, the colors in these works flip back and forth in a perceptual game in which the parts that pop up or slip behind are determined solely by the individual eye.”
The small works are the key to the paintings that make up the aptly named Polyrhythm. Instead of a single field of red covered with black, the first coat is a multicolored grid that is only partially painted over. Sometimes a whole panel of color shows through, like the striking cobalt blue rectangles of “Untitled (P-1503)” (2015), and sometimes just the outer edges remain visible, forming a kind of Early American Modernist frame around the canvas, as in “Untitled (P-1504)” (2015).
Unlike the earlier large paintings, which posited a single forward-direction for the stacks of cubes and then built on it relentlessly, here the dazzlingly colored linear elements go every which way, veering off into curves, triangles, trapezoids and zigzags. There’s a spirit of fresh invention bursting from each one of these works — some cleanly, with minimal alterations, and some densely packed with the history of the painting’s facture.
Everything here rewards sustained looking, but the more worked-over pieces are especially rich in incident. In “Untitled (P-1423)” (2014), near the gallery’s front window, Karolak scumbles viscous strokes of black paint over intense patches of color to create luxuriant umbers and mossy grays. He also lays black over some of the adjoining brightly toned lines, and the resulting juxtapositions generate dark, mysterious spaces in the corners of an otherwise ebullient surface.
A small painting like “Untitled (P-1416)” (2014), at just 17 x 14 inches, seems almost too loaded for its size, as a continuously changing band of color twists and loops from the center toward the outer edges, and a black-violet-blue counterpoint of barely discernible shapes detonates the space beneath. It’s a high-intensity marvel of compaction, an impossible-to-comprehend maze-within-a-maze.
The visual riddles posed by Karolak’s paintings — their refusal to settle into a single perspective and their devilishly complex accumulation of elements — tether their freewheeling abstraction and neon color to an unknowable reality. The faceted, see-through strata of densely woven skeins of paint advance and recede in space as the clusters of line and shape swarm and disperse. Nothing is settled. The compositions seem to be the conclusion of perpetual improvisation, which comes to a rest only upon some indefinable cue from the painting itself. The flares of color intersecting the surface reflect the ubiquity and permeability of networks; they seem to chart the ebb and flow of commerce, trace traffic patterns or plot the random directionality of an electrical field.
They are also an affirmation of the durability of Cubism in the 21st century — a repackaging of its spatial ambiguities into highly-keyed lines and planes that can flip their perspective at any moment, forcing your eye backwards, forwards, across and around. These works lack the deep space of the earlier larger paintings, in which the overlapping lines suggested a sculptural object hurled from an abyss. In keeping with its Cubist predilections, the space here is shallower, but its compression acts as an engine that pushes the composition forward, condensed and frontal, meeting the viewer head-on. It’s more of an all-over strategy than the previous work, but it makes for very strong stuff.
The vitality of Karolak’s painting proceeds from a deft understanding of the simplest of ingredients: the handmade line; the active ground; the freedom of improvisation and the rigor of minimal means. The paintings are also a joy to look at — the unabashed hedonism of their hot colors and choreographed shapes leads the senses to a contemplation of their propulsive infrastructure, where the barely visible and the well-hidden act as dark matter simultaneously holding the elements together and breaking them apart.
The quasi-geometric nature of Karolak’s approach perhaps gives the viewer a better foothold into the enigmas his paintings evoke than something more overtly gestural and emotionally laden. The paintings remain curiously objective even as they seduce the eye, skirting both ingratiation and remoteness, which makes them all the more irresistible. The elements, from the glowing lines and fragments of shapes to the undergirding darkness, are plainly and rationally indicated, a resplendently straightforward accounting of the unaccountable.
Jason Karolak: Polyrhythm continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 22.