It is often noted that painting doesn’t reproduce well-that, in this age of virtual viewing, painting, more than other mediums, insists on being seen in the flesh. Indeed, some of today’s strongest painting demands physical presence as a precondition for even the most basic apprehension. Deploying varied processes and subtle color relationships, the seven works that made up Will Fowler’s spare exhibition at David Kordansky exemplify painting’s resistance to digitization and reward physical encounter.
Working with nothing but canvas and acrylic paint that appears to be straight from the tube, L.A.-based Fowler (b. 1969) embraces an economy of means. Yet this direct approach to medium is a foil for layered styles and techniques, including masking, gestural brushwork, scratched lines and hard-edged abstraction. The paintings are lightly scored with vertical pinstripes, drawing attention to the surface. Beneath, flattened geometric and biomorphic shapes, awkwardly angled lines, illegible words and graphic patterns all compete for space. The result is a visual melee.
The compositional logic-or illogic-of Fowler’s canvases (most about 5 by 6½ feet) demands sustained looking at close range and at full scale. The paintings brim over with contradictory visual data, refusing to accommodate even an eye accustomed to parsing genres of abstraction. In addition, Fowler’s palettes are perverse-a splotch of magenta disrupts red organic forms crisply defined against a plane of flat yellow in Comet (2012). The clean red and blue triangles of what could be a corporate logo pop out of Hospital (2012), a painting otherwise dominated by muddy gray-greens and a cobalt inevitably conjuring International Klein Blue.
The venerable traditions of 20th-century abstraction, from Neoplasticism to Abstract Expressionism, are evoked and corrupted in Fowler’s paintings, which, if one takes the artist at his word, may not be abstractions at all. “One sided coins trying to grow legs and shuffle away” is how Fowler, in a gallery handout, describes the compositional structure that governs most of the paintings. And indeed, after some looking, this motif does emerge. Taken together, the works reveal a certain consistency: individual pieces are strengthened through dialogue with others as inharmonious color pairings and odd forms recur, creating a tenuous sense of order.
It is an important moment for abstract painting-artists as diverse as Charline von Heyl and Mark Bradford have given new relevance to rigorous, formally complex abstraction. In this vein, Fowler crafts compositions wrought of multiple art historical and conceptual threads. His canvases slow vision to a crawl, and suffer on the computer screen. Nonetheless, his archeologically dense abstractions chart a new visual field.
Photo: Will Fowler: Hospital, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 65 by 78 inches; at David Kordansky.