Scott Malbaurn at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery

Scott Malbaurn, Young World (2011), acrylic on canvas over panel, 11″ x 14″; courtesy Janet Kurnatowski Gallery

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What can it mean when an abstract artist describes his pictures as “nouns”–as “simple” nouns, no less? Wasn’t the goal of abstraction to liberate imagery from the tyranny of naming? Depends if you consider abstract art a culmination of established pictorial tropes or their continuation.

Like any keen student of history, like any painter worth his salt, Scott Malbaurn works within the shadow of precedent and toward the less certain precincts of possibility. Mining high modernism for its rigor and clarity, Malbaurn uncovers nuances of pictorial form within circumscribed parameters. Make that seemingly circumscribed: Malbaurn’s recent explorations of the chevron are proof that a given motif is viable to the extent in which an artist endows it with newfound (or idiosyncratic) purpose.

The chevron has, after all, been around. Forget gas station logos, military insignia and Color Field painting—the chevron dates back to prehistoric times, adorning the pottery and carvings of our ancestors. Malbaurn’s canvases don’t explicitly address this lineage, but they do build upon it with probing, self-effacing insistence.

Employing masking tape as a means of definition—as a form of drawing, really–Malbaurn layers innumerable runs of transparent acrylic to create luminous fields of off-key, all but un-nameable color—wan earthy yellows, bottomless reds, and blues as dense and clear as amber. Juxtaposing warm and cool tonalities, Malbaurn fits his palette within precisely regulated patterns, and brings architectural logic to the compositions even as they establish sharp, surprising rhythms. The resulting images are simultaneously immovable and forever pulsing, solid as the proverbial rock and as evanescent as the nighttime sky.

Concision and order are bolstered, then, by contingency. Malbaurn’s meticulously executed surfaces and jeweler’s attention to detail allow for the ebb-and-flow of process—of associations and tangents discovered, transformed and deepened; of the hand’s quiet supplications; of spaces rendered both expansive and intimate. A chevron, in Malbaurn’s hands, is always itself and something else altogether–a noun encompassing meanings that go beyond even the artist’s ken. If that sounds like a tall order, well, it is—an order Malbaurn embodies to bracing effect.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Published on the occasion of Scott Malbaurn: Lean, an exhibition at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery (October 14th-November 13th, 2011).

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