Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Gallery

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-125) (2010), oil on linen, 22″ x 28″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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In an interview included in the catalog accompanying an exhibition of his recent paintings and drawings at Pace Gallery, Thomas Nozkowski talks about the whys and wherefores of the work, about the mutability of perception, the mysterious dynamic between artist and viewer, and how smoking pot helps in tolerating aesthetic blind-alleys.

Mentioning his “systematic, formalistic” canvases from the 1960s and ’70s, Nozkowski describes them as bringing “trouble [to] no one’s eyes.” For those of us who have followed this artist’s droll brand of abstraction over the last 30 years or so, it’s difficult to imagine a Nozkowski painting that isn’t trouble.

Trouble is, after all, why we’re drawn to the work. Nozkowski’s images never stop pulling at our eyes, at our capability to pin down the very real sensations embodied within their quizzical arrays of errant geometry and furtive biomorphs. Each painting is based on a tangible thing or event, embodying (as Nozkowski has it) the “great mystery of individuality.”

Forget for a moment that, say, the eight mischievous triangles ensconced inUntitled (8-137) or the lurching diagrammatic monolith in Untitled (8-122)are impossible to decipher as literal signifiers of this-or-that object or narrative. What matters is the unprecedented level of specificity in which they’ve been concentrated as pictures. Embedded within their crystalline structures and abraded surfaces is an encompassing and contradictory range of lived experience. A Nozkowski is, in its own deadpan way, as maddeningly enigmatic as a prime Vermeer.

Not that Nozkowski is on that level–come on, who is?–but that the comparison is remotely feasible points to the pictorial and metaphorical density of his art. The current exhibition at Pace underscores the relationship between the drawings and paintings—the former are studies of the latter in transition—and, as such, provides insight into Nozkowski’s working process. But reportage isn’t magic and it’s only with oils that this artist brings to fruition his confounding, funny and evocative vision.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 10, 2010 edition of City Arts.

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