September 6 – October 11, 2014
It’s important to remember that, unlike in life, no one gets hurt on the stage of painting. Some artists choose to reveal the scaffolding, lights, and dark box of this stage, while others conceal it as best they can. Tomer Aluf belongs in the first category: his paintings present a wide-open and generous stage, dandified with a touch of black magic. For his first solo show at Kansas, Aluf presented 13 oil-on-canvas paintings, all from 2014, that are both expressionistic and symbolic, without valuing one approach over the other.
All “Untitled,” the paintings embody a loose constellation of desires for the Israeli-born, New York-based artist. Four large-scaled canvases, all 60 by 54 inches, show the artist’s range in their eccentric composition, and explicitly tackle the subject of how to make a painting. In the gallery’s intimate back room, two of Aluf’s strongest works showcase his minimalist and maximalist tendencies. In the leaner painting, an outline of a hand reaches for a nipple or a paintbrush, a mash-up of sex and art that is in evidence throughout the show. At the center of the painting, a collaged rectangle of canvas with “Oi!!” written in bold black letters is an important de-centering element that draws one closer to the work. A thickly-painted dark red lobster claw and a bright burst of orange, turquoise, and beige act as glue adhering the smaller “painting” to the larger surface. The work is cheerfully meta, a painting within a painting that is framed by a parade of pointy-toed black boots. Adjacent to it is an AbEx phantasmagoria rendered in broad strokes of cadmium yellow, green, and purple that features another lobster claw, a red organ-like mass, bones, legs, and pointy boots. The surface is decorated with glued-on almonds that are partially camouflaged by layers of oil paint. The action of this painting has been stopped at a perfect point, where the colors are on the verge of muddiness but still radiant, and the brew of figuration is indeterminate.
Aluf’s use of collage in painting has a gentleness that seems akin to early modern experiments with making space in painting. It is both playful and serious, and also just a matter of convenience, using whatever is around, the resourcefulness of the shaman-painter. There is an emotional timbre similar to Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger, painters who worked through their country’s history with a series of lightning fast trickster moves. An all-over polka dot pattern in some works acts like a screen, a wonkier version of Polke’s Benday dot paintings of the 1960s. A less obvious predecessor for Aluf would be Georges Braque, whose paintings are like mirrors reflecting the debris of love, chaos, and history that the studio collects in time.
The nine small works, mostly 30 by 24 inches are installed in two facing rows in one gallery room, and as a pair in the back room. They range from flat, sign painting—green arms forming a loose Indian swastika, a breast merging with letters spelling out “Oi!!”—to brushy exhilarations and splatters that feel tangibly animal-like. There is a creamy, fleshy quality to the paint handling, and the white outline of a wine glass frequently shows up like a talisman of excess. The most compelling of the small paintings presents a donkey’s head held in place by two bone-like appendages, a red tambourine, and a green triangle. The painted things are props for a mysticism that is never explicitly laid out, and is all the more powerful for its privacy. Even when the images are clearly readable, as in this work, they seem at the service of an abstraction that has more to do with the artist’s studio process than with the intrinsic power of the painted symbol.
Tomer Aluf is reaching for a measured formlessness that looks easier than it is. The paint application can seem too rakish and even confusingly ugly in some cases, but that is part of the game. In a large painting that holds the main hallway of the gallery, two orange-red squares dominate the upper left and lower right corners of the canvas. Streaks of cobalt blue, tube-squeezed, have the urgency of finger paint, and a blot of forest green mixed with white is like a note of organic matter. Paintings that speak truth to the power of domination wear sensitivities on their sleeve. The flat openness, and friendly but anxious mythos of these works is a reminder that painting is not just an object, but also a medium, capable of exercising ghosts and recording varied states of ecstasy.