MODERN COLOR: Paintings by Paul Resika and Tyler Loftis
Leigh Morse Fine Arts
22 E. 80 #5 NY, NY
May 14 to June 21, 2014
Review by Thaddeus Radell
Painting as Alchemy: Paul Resika and Tyler Loftis
A thought-provoking exhibition of paintings is now on view at Leigh Morse Fine Art. The works of Paul Resika and Tyler Loftis meet in a carefully orchestrated dialogue whose subject is ostensibly color—modern color. And true to this motif, the works create a provocative conversation that sighs an overall breath of painterly vision that is quite refreshing. Both artists actively deploy a dynamic and charged palette of color.The resulting images are intelligently paired throughout the exhibition to create echoes and establish harmonies of both color and subject. It would be shocking if Resika’s work did not emerge as the more deeply poetic and expressively accomplished, given the half century of additional time he has had at the easel filtering his life experience onto canvas. Loftis makes up for depth of vision by adopting a high level of pictorial risk-taking, a quality that elevates his images within range of the Resikas. Two of the principal pieces paired in this exhibition, Resika’s Arabesque and Loftis’ Dunes, illustrate this balancing act, both paintings resounding with a full and joyful bouquet of color. The sheer elegance of Arabesques’ lilting rhythms draws from a deeper, richer aesthetic that should crush the stiff, even brittle geometry of Dunes. However, the heaviness, the insistent scaffolding of color planes in Dunes forces the viewer into stark contact with the picture plane and the result is, if not profound, powerful. The odd, very odd, addition of a caricatured lightening bolt threatening several tiny triangles on the horizon completes the argument for the presence of risk-taking by Mr. Loftis.
But the idea to unite these works may not, in the end, be color. It is certainly not poetics, nor risk. The true subject of this exhibition is the paint itself.
The color is, to be sure the most apparent common ingredient, used effectively by both artists and it is true that upon entering the gallery’s intimate, dignified space one is struck first by a certain delightful buoyancy, as if entering a small chapel full of birds in full song. However, a more powerful and sustaining force than this splendid ode to color soon reveals itself in the remarkable dynamic created by the paint itself, the prima materia, the pigment and solvent, the stone and water. The works here on view speak poignantly of materials, Resika and Loftis implementing drastically opposing approaches to their materials.
Painting is, in the end, an activity wherein the artist works the inert materials of pigment and solvent into another dimension, in principal creating the fabled moment of hypostasis where spirit is breathed into matter. A fascinating approach to the actual implications inherent in the physicality of the painting process is one effectively described by James Elkins in his insightful book, What Painting Is. Elkins begins his fine treatise by the simple observation: “Painting is alchemy” (the italics are his) and subsequently builds quite a brilliant dissertation relating painting and alchemy in terms of their mutual aspirations to metamorphose inert materials of unknown properties.
The alchemists reduced the hundreds of substances that they knew to a fundamental trinity: mercury, sulfur and salt. Mercury, or quicksilver, represented the principle of liquidity or fluidity. In painting that would be the solvent. Sulfur was mercury’s complement, with its elemental fieriness and stoniness; its equivalent in painting being pigment, the color itself. Salt was whatever remained after evaporation, the sterile end product of an experiment, the “earthly principle.” The alchemists sought to discover balance, where the principles of water (mercury) and stone (pigment) met in relative harmony in the resulting “salt.” In painting, the solvent mixed with pigment yields the solid, dried salty crust of paint on the canvas. The alchemists explored the possibilities inherent in substances—unknown, uncharted substances—and worked to witness and document their metamorphosis.
As Elkins points out, the obscure trials and practices of the alchemists are, on a very basic yet real level, what painters face in their studios. Painters take basic substances of which they really do not have that much knowledge, and by combining them in a wild variety of ways, sometimes intuitively, sometimes prosaically (but hopefully never, as Leland Bell would say, “in a silly way”), elevate these very elements of solvent and pigment into an image.
Resika and Loftis clearly and consistently exemplify different and opposing states of balance between the two antithetical principles of solvent and pigment. Resika’s work is mercurial, feminine and fluid, a singing rhapsody of light. Even in an early work such as Watermill (1979), whose paint is quite heavily and rigorously applied, or The Leaving of Moses II (2012) with its all its slavered layers of creamy tones, one feels the oil before one senses the pigment. Not that Resika’s work neglects tactility; his expression comes through as he rejoices in the juicy, oily sensuousness of tube after tube of Old Holland colors that he consumes so lavishly. Sometimes, indeed, the resulting images tilt so far in the direction of watery solvent that they would deeply trouble a passing alchemist. Works such as Through the Trees, Fayence (1998) or Untitled, Figure 8 (2011) almost dissolve in thin washes of thinly pigmented color, the image dangerously just beginning to lose its grip on structure.
Loftis, on the other hand, has no fear of pigment. In fact, the salt formed in his paintings is parched and crusted, almost suffocated in pigment. The color in Winter Lake (2013) clearly resonates with the adjacent Resika, Through the Trees, Fayence (1998), yet the paint itself in Winter Lake (2013) feels dry and almost thirsty by comparison. Backyard (2013)is all fire, the burning reds hotter for the acidic greens that twist through them. Loftis answers the dappled lusciousness of Resika’s Road to the Bay with Landscape up North(2012), a severely nuanced study of finely tuned yellow and violet. Again and again Loftis seemingly attacks the mesmerizing facility of Resika, countering the recklessly mercurial images of his senior with his fire and energy.
The alchemy which is painting is bright and alive at Leigh Morse Fine Art 22 E. 80th St. #5. Resika and Loftis engage in a dynamic conversation opposing mercurial finesse with sulfuric risk to create a salty exhibition very much worth seeing.