PETER PLAGENSby David Rhodes
Nancy Hoffman | January 25 – March 10, 2018
Believing in self-expression is like believing in fairies—delusional, but fun for some people. It’s by now a very antiquated notion. Counter to this fantasy is the late poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), who found his poems as difficult to explain as everyone else did, which of course doesn’t diminish their power. Paintings, like poems, can and often do gain independence from the author as they are produced. There is an estrangement—immediate, and then ongoing—when an artist makes a painting. (This is as true for an artist who writes about art as for one who does not. There is no advantage for a critic who begins the process of making a painting.) The best works of art are always like this, I suspect. It is for the reader or viewer to find out what is there for them—or for the artist, in front of their own painting or poem, to work that out too.
This is what comes to mind when thinking of Peter Plagens eight new paintings and three works on paper at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. A writer and painter, Plagens has produced paintings for many years, and speaks of them as now directing him in their making. The premise for each work is to finish the painting with a geometric configuration of contrasting, flatly painted, strident color: what the artist refers to as a “badge” appears a bit like a funky crystal. Beneath the badges are a primary gestural and speedily applied layer that moves up to or near the painting’s outer edges, drips appearing below, and a secondary layer of opaque color with an irregular perimeter. The three layers are an uneasy fit, yet find an accommodation, each not determining the others so much as coming together at an unlikely disjunct. Each of the three constituent parts, one imagines, could do very well by themselves—but then the different modes wouldn’t come into conflict, which is the point.
Take, for example, Treasures o’ the Street (2017). Each of the three elements transfer a different kind of visual energy in a revolving dance, an ongoing flux of outline, structure, and line. Spatially, the geometric area is out in front. The interlocking edges of the gestural and opaque layers are not so stable in their relations, changing place as gesture and shape tango to conflicting beats. That’s not to say that the geometric area is static either—far from it, it flips and shifts in a disharmonious but satisfying rhythm with the other parts of the painting. Like the dancing of a late-1920s Berlin Ballhaus, it contains improvised electric movements, a stop, a start, and syncopation—fast to loquacious and back again.
The three works on paper also have a centrifugal core. In the center is a piece of found paper that, with the painterly improvisation surrounding it, resolves in a formal way—opposites align, a fragment of the real world and an abstract painting, without explanation. In Black Flag (2014), what appears to be part of an image of the Chinese flag, one large yellow star and smaller one on red ground is incorporated into one facet of a geometric shape. The collage element, in contrast to the paintings, complicates the usually flat, bright color by introducing a rough-edged plane that inserts itself into the sharp-edged form. A dark-gray surrounding area is bounded by loosely brushed and drawn gestural marks on a pale-gray wash, which doesn’t quite fill the white paper sheet, leaving yet another perimeter shape. The small works on paper have a less abrasive impact than the larger, more imposing paintings, because of their scale.
This is Plagen’s best show to date, with works that indicate an ongoing achievement after decades of work, which thematically returns to the same question of how a presumed incompatibility of styles can co-exist in the same painting. There is nothing to suggest he is finished furthering this project yet. Plagens isn’t an “artist-critic”—he’s both an artist and a critic. He knows they are different projects.
DAVID RHODES is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK. He has published reviews in the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, and Artcritical, among other publications.