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One of the revitalizing shots to abstract painting has been the continual critique of its legitimacy by practitioners within the field of painting itself. This dialogue has created a healthy and necessary antagonism that has pushed abstraction well into the 21st century, despite the many claims of its imminent death. In the wake of postmodernism the discourse that surrounds abstraction has often been distilled into two dominant signs: the expressive, or gestural, signifying emotion; and the analytic, or minimal, signifying intellect. Scott Malbaurn’s paintings fit neatly into this dialogue by oscillating between, and commenting on, both modes.

Scott Malbaurn, "Pink Rainbow." Courtesy of Galeria Janet Kurnatowski.

Malbaurn presents us with 12 small paintings at Brooklyn’s Galeria Janet Kurnatowski. All are compositionally minimal and painted with Malbaurn’s own concoction of synthetic water-based media—silica, urethane, acrylic resin, and pigment. The result is a surface and texture much like vinyl or leather. When coupled with the near-absence of any color (all but two of the paintings are black, white, and gray) the surface adds a curious physicality to the work that feels simultaneously natural and synthetic. Malbaurn describes the markings on his paintings as “nouns found in nature,” based on tornadoes, flowers, leaves, and rainbows. These abstracted images are created by continuous, hard-edged lines that curve and zigzag over the surface. In some of the pictures these lines are actually set into, or carved out of, the surface to form an absence or relief. This effect is created through Malbaurn’s use of tape, which he carefully applies to the surface and then removes, treating it as a drawing tool. The outcome of this process speaks to the idea of gesture yet refutes its actuality.

The two paintings in which mediated gesture most interestingly plays itself out are White: Head to Head and Black: Head to Head. At 18”× 18” they look like mini-Jo Baers, complete with a dominant field of non-color (one white, the other black) surrounded by a hard-edged border of its opposite. In other words, a white field with black border and a black field with white border. In both paintings, which are smartly hung next to each other, there are small visual irritants at the left and right edges of the surface: small knot-like formations of Malbaurn’s hard-edged line. They sit neatly within the confines of the border, touching, but never breaching, its boundary. What one doesn’t readily notice, but that slowly comes into focus, is the loosely tangled scar running horizontally across the surface of the painting, connecting the two irritants. These scars are unique because, instead of hard-edged, taped lines, they look as if Malbaurn had taken the end of his paintbrush and scrawled lightly and cursively through the nearly dry paint surface. The result is compelling and strange. It also comes closest to the charged, uneasy unity between gesture and stasis that the artist seems to be searching for.

By not relying on the “nouns” he is so fond of in the other pieces on display, Malbaurn creates a space that is entirely abstract, and in doing so, aligns himself with older painters like Jonathan Lasker and David Reed, painters who early on called attention to the semantics surrounding abstract mark-making in a postmodern era. Through his insistence in taping off every edge and every line, Malbaurn’s paintings at times read as over-studied contrivances. They leave no room for the warp and stutter of the human touch. I find this degree of mediation suspect. One wonders what would happen if he stopped relying on semantics and instead allowed gestural interventions to speak for themselves.


Craig Olson

Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 06-JAN 07

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