Friday, July 29, 2011

Zak Prekop Makes Good Paintings

by Stephen Cummings

Zak Prekop, 2011, Untitled

Zak Prekop makes good paintings — at least as far as I can tell, given the selection currently on view at the Carnegie Museum. As part of Pittsburgh's 2011 Biennial, the museum has assembled a group of works ranging from generously sized found objects to stacks of a newsprint comic book to sculpture that urges the use of 3D glasses. The sampling makes Prekop's flat canvases appear downright traditional, even as they thwart expectations. While much else in the show seems to be clambering (yes, clambering) for attention — albeit with a fairly uniform detachment — Prekop's works stand out from the others not because they stretch farther, but rather because they hang back, waiting for you to take notice. Do.

In total there are seven paintings, roughly human in size. I say 'paintings', though all but one of these pieces include collaged paper. They represent a breed of abstraction somewhat reminiscent of the irregular, amorphous color forms of Ellsworth Kelly, as well as the great collages of Henri Matisse, which he called "drawing with scissors." Two pieces in fact are straight collage in the Matisse tradition, but with their cut paper shapes adhered to the backs of their stretched, bare canvases — and minus the color. Much as these predecessors, Prekop is drawing with the edges of his shapes. This as opposed to forming the edges of those shapes through his drawing, just one of the apparent contradictions that makes the work so engaging.

If there is any expression in these forms at all, perhaps it is to be found in the edges, but taken with the work's other elements, a cool remove is constantly established. Where there is color, it tends to be muted. Where there is pattern, it is interrupted. Where texture is evident, it is ever used to emphasize these paintings' stubborn flatness. Even when offering up a deep, Yves Klein blue, or running blue and red racing stripes across a canvas, Prekop deliberately interrupts his compositions, substituting reticence for would-be boldness. Fields of paint are broken up to make their holds on the canvases merely tentative. Much of what is presented seems as though it has already been peeled away. There is nothing of Agnes Martin's search for the sublime in the patterning here. Something so grand is necessarily undermined. We're not allowed to grab hold of anything in considering this work, as though we're repeatedly being told No, it can't be.

This is precisely these paintings' allure. Because nothing is asserted without due contradiction, a skepticism is instilled that is either melancholy or refreshing, or probably both. Without being allowed to fall wholly into any one illusion, we must enter each deliberately, aware of the impossibility of the journey, but willing to indulge nonetheless, just for the moment. What Zak Prekop has offered is a space stripped of presumption, where everything must be taken as false before anything can be accepted as true. The result is a group of works that do not ask you to come in, but, once you have, are reluctant to let you out.

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