An installation view of Zak Prekop’s solo show at Harris Lieberman Gallery (All images courtesy the artist and Harris Lieberman, New York)

There are a number of things that distinguish Zak Prekop, who was born in 1979, from other young painters. The most important one is that he hasn’t turned what he does into a style or, in today’s parlance, a brand consisting of signature gestures. For while he has developed a method of making based on collage and optical disturbance, he has kept his options open. He embraces both the literal and the fictive as well as intertwines them in ways that are assured and compelling.

Zak Prekop, “Untitled Collage (with Black Ground)” (2012), Oil and paper on canvas, 60 x 42 inches (click to enlarge)

Through his formally imaginative use of collage and a mere handful of closely related colors and hues, he explores painting as a flat, layered thing consisting of a palpable and porous membrane (light tan linen) stretched over an open rectangular structure (wooden stretcher). Given his formal concerns and focus on painting’s ineluctable identity, Prekop seems to have learned a lot from Robert Ryman and the Support-Surface group of French painters and sculptors, but he is not derivative of them. His solutions — if you want to call them that — feel fresh, particularly because of the ways he incorporates deception into his work.

Prekop seems intent on testing different relationships and possibilities, which leave his path open at this point. In “Untitled Collage (with Black Ground)” (2012), he provides the viewer with what I would call a threshold experience, where one is transported into a realm in which visual distinctions are difficult to make. (The artist’s sense of limits and of unraveling strikes me as more than just a set of formal concerns).

On the painting’s obverse side, Prekop has attached a large sheet of cut and shaped paper. He has sliced a semicircle out of the paper and then collaged the cut-out against the void’s diameter, creating a circle in which the positive shape and negative space are both visible and hidden, making it difficult to tell which is which. The figure is literally behind the translucent surface, making it into a porous membrane we both see and try to see through.

Prekop has done more than just invert the relationship. The painting becomes a portal through which the artist focuses our attention on the slippery relationship between visibility and invisibility, knowing and not knowing. Seeing becomes a matter of ascertaining differences, even as the artist undermines our engagement, making us question what we can ever know. At the same time, “Untitled Collage (with Black Ground)” doesn’t feel contrived or theatrical.  I didn’t think Prekop’s deception was a trick, but something that the painting required.

Zak Prekop, “Painted Collage” (2012), Oil, acrylic and paper bags on canvas, 19 x 26 inches (click to enlarge)

In addition to his use of collage, Prekop is interested in optical sensation. However, he neither elevates sight above the visceral nor uses hard-edged shapes, as does Bridget Riley. Made of paint, Prekop’s jagged shapes resemble pieces of torn paper embedded in the painting. He outlines the “torn shapes” and juxtaposes them next to a slightly darker or lighter hue. Again, we feel as if we are looking at and into a layered domain, something whose layers have been partially torn off.

The painting is a physical thing whose mechanics interest Prekop. His paintings beckon you from a distance, bidding you to move closer to the surface, and to scrutinize it. Again, he is focused on threshold experiences, on encouraging the viewer to achieve a state of fine-tuned looking that can be confounding and disquieting, as well as intriguing and delightful.

Zak Prekop, “Untitled Transparency” (2011), Oil and paper on canvas, 72 x 48 inches (click to enlarge)

In “Untitled Transparency” (2011), Prekop painted jagged white areas on the linen surface, which is otherwise left bare. To these distinct, seemingly torn white areas, he has added vertical and horizontal gray bands that allude to the painting’s stretcher bars. It’s as if the jagged white areas (or torn pieces of paper) reveal what lies behind the surface. At the same time, Prekop attached strips of stiff paper to the painting’s observe side, continuing their trajectory in red diagonals across the white shapes and gray bands. We see the space as both flat and open.

Contradiction lies at the heart of Prekop’s paintings and our experience of them. In “Untitled Transparency,” he uses literal collage  (the strips on the obverse side) and something similar to trompe l’oeil.  Here again we are meant to sort and discriminate. And, to suggest another layer of meaning that Prekop incorporates into the painting, the jagged white areas also evoke fragments of frescoes, making the stretcher into a cross. In this reading, the red diagonals become divine rays. That Prekop can evoke these diverse readings within a single painting is strong proof of both his achievement at a young age and his potential.

In “Untitled Transparency,” Prekop has effectively dissolved the differences between front and back, and figure and ground. Instead of literally carving into the canvas, he brings visual contradictions into play through paint’s depictive capacities, calling into question the relationship between seeing and knowing. The gray “stretcher bars” are embedded in the jagged white areas as if poking through from underneath.  The unpainted linen, which takes up most of the painting, becomes the surface on which the paint has been placed as well as a translucent membrane that we can partially see through. Each way of seeing is simultaneously connected and distinct from the other.

We see the four red lines going from the painting’s upper left to the lower right as broken segments, connected by the strips of paper affixed to the other side of the canvas. However, a closer look reveals a strip with no red mate in the painting’s upper right hand side. Suddenly, the red lines and affixed strips seem capricious. There is no logical reason for the artist to have introduced these into the painting, unlike the vertical band and four horizontal ones, which seem to be about a painting’s essential identity. By adding something unpredictable, Prekop denies essentialism, as well as opens up a space for the imagination to wander. Logic, the painting demonstrates, can only take us so far. And then something else — imagination or capriciousness — intervenes.

In “Two Colors” (2012), Prekop painted looping marks in muted yellow on a cool white ground. He didn’t reload the brush when the paint began to thin out. It is hard to tell where one color ends and the other begins. The painting seems to flicker like a low-intensity strobe light. The figure-ground relationship is unstable, and, like “Untitled Collage (with Black Ground),” the longer you look, the more difficult it becomes to determine which is which.

In contrast to the practitioners of Op Art (Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak), who were after a graphic clarity, Prekop develops a loose structure in which the ability to distinguish figure and ground proves elusive, or else he constructs a layered structure where the shift from part to whole is unpredictable. “Untitled (Blue)” (2011) is a good example of this. Prekop’s tough-minded independence is notable. He has neither bought into the paradigm of deskilling nor aligned himself with the widely practiced style of provisional painting. His explorations of formal issues are a good indication that there is still much that can be done.

Zak Prekop continues at Harris Liberman Gallery (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until March 17.

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