Brian Kokoska: Beige Infinity
Blanket Gallery, Vancouver
14 January - Feb 25th 2012
Since 2008, a group of uncanny characters has been eating, dancing, sucking, fucking, kissing and hugging its way through Brian Kokoska's paintings. I’m not sure whether these figures have been drawn from a narrow and circulating roster of sitters, or if each character represents a new addition to an ever expanding cast. At least two factors contribute to this confusion. While the inhabitants of Kokoska's pictures are typically slim and youthful, their visages have almost always been laden with a range of painterly effects that have suspended their identities in kaleidoscopic instability. Even the pronounced formal idiosyncrasies of the monstrous figures that are often tangled up with these boyish bodies have had their singularity thrown into question by gross accumulations of painterly material, and playfully inventive exchanges between figure and ground which suggest that their ghastly appearances might be as maleable and shapeshifting as the painterly exercises that form them. As much as Kokoska's bodies have generally tended towards idealized vernal beauty, they have also appeared as polychromatic human rainbows, macabre patchworks of fleshy brush strokes reminiscent of the damaged epiderm's of burn victims, or clownish masks that grow into one another as surely as they grow into and out of their variegated grounds.
All of these conceits carried into the thirteen paintings presented in Beige Infinity, where they were subjected to a number of refinements and revisions. The first and most obvious trait connecting past and present works was the appearance of figures whom occupied various positions on a spectrum between a young and feminized take on the classical male body – with smooth musculature and carefully depicted gestures – and the conventionally monstrous. The more classical faces within Beige Infinity could be described as interpretations of a refined androgyny that appears often in todays image culture – specifically in fashion industry photography. The painters Elizabeth Peyton and Steven Shearer come to mind as artists who have also employed this conceit, wherein the human image becomes a kind of serial object.
Having spent a lot of time with Kokoska’s paintings, I have often had the sense that while this character sports “ginger hair”, I have seen him elsewhere, maybe with brown hair… and maybe wearing a mask... A particularly important aspect of the structure that creates this kind of rhyming between works, are the figure's noses, which often seem like discreet ornaments more than bodily protrusions. The autonomy that these noses enjoy is a result of their separation from the rest of the face by linework, and shifts in colour.
Another kind of separation constitutes the most pronounced departure of Beige Infinity from the artist's previous work. Because nearly every figure has been given its own canvas, the pictures in this exhibition mostly abandon inter-human touch, in favour of comfortable isolation. The closest Beige Infinity came to hardcore was Rub Club (2011) a grainy, black and grey work in which one young man – wearing a kind of eyes wide open non-expression – pulled at the cock of an equally deadpan gentleman to his left. The cool feeling of this rendezvous contrasted sharply against the intense physicality and expressiveness of the tongue sucking and limb twisting orgies of Kokoska’s work from 2008-2010. Even more sober was Honey (2011), in which viewers met the upturned face of yet another fit young man, who, with eyes closed and mouth hanging slightly open, held his own penis, which could just as well have been flacid as erect; the picture’s downward perspective limited viewers vision of the organ to its head, which squeezed over the top of a closed fist, and the accompanying scrotal pouch that protruded beneath it. Like Rub Club, this work was nearly monochromatic. True to its title, it was filled with washed out hues of brownish yellow, with the most saturated tone filling the figure, whose hair, eyelids, nose and lips had been rendered in white. At no point was the paint dense enough to mask the originating pencil sketch. The muted tones of both works corresponded nicely to the exhibition’s title, suggesting the plateauing of a hyperactive lascivious drive once rendered as an ecstacy laced dream.
This coolness melted into confident aloofness in the expression of a young man who appeared in Frost (2011), a portrait painting in the most direct sense of the word. This boy’s nose was rendered as the perpendicular extension of a raccoon style mask encircling two eyes, with irises that shared their milky blue colouring with the character's hair, itself outlined in a shade of Cerulean blue matching shadows around his eyes. Less than half a dozen swooping lines described the hair's encroachment onto a forehead coloured in translucent layers of a pink only slightly richer than that which covered the rest of the fellow's face, and naked upper body. Through the use of colour and devices such as the mask, this painting drew attention to circuits of colour – between lips, eyes and hair – that help to organize human physiognomy; more specifically, it othered them, embellishing their strangeness, and that of the affects that they produce in life.
The transition between works like Honey and Boardwalk Breeze (2011), articulated simultaneous contrasts and resemblances between the conventional notions of youthful male beauty, and monstrous ugliness that appear in Kokoska's pictoral world. In Boardwalk Breeze the fractures that occur in his more naturalistic renderings – in the interior relationships between facial features and between those features and our expectations of them – were amplified and brutalized by way of a character whose face appeared as a bruised, blue and purple ovoid. The figure sat sideways on an enigmatic brown structure. Its right leg – clothed in dark-blue pants – was closest to the picture plane and was pulled towards its chest by two orange arms that criss-crossed over the foot, grasping it. The figures’s foremost upper arm was decorated with and interlocking patterns sketched in the same deep purple as a mane of hair which encircled the creature's face. In contrast to that of Frost, this figure's hair was wiry and matted; making abrupt departures from its roots at sudden, akward angles.
One consequence of the figures' isolation within discreet pictures was that their gazes became re-directed towards the viewer. In Boardwalk Breeze, the character's eyes took the form of black dots reminiscent of the coal eyeballs of snowmen, which floated in front of the character’s off kilter mug without shadow or high light to give them dimension. The figure’s nose, on the contrary, was a modelled orange mass closely approximating the shape of a Roma tomato. Completing this ghoulish countenance was a mouth, rendered as a black cavity with six white “chiclet teeth” -- to borrow the title of a book worked recently produced by Kokoska – hanging from it’s upper edge. In spite of the brutality of this face, mauve shadows pushing into the underside of it’s cheeks created the impression of a smile. This arrangement seemed to de-stabilize conventional notions about the emotions that accompany monstrous ugliness. But that’s assuming that the smile connected back to a generative happiness.
The physiognomy that I have just described was the tightest portion of an otherwise loosely painted image. Boardwalk Breeze was the first painting wherein Kokoska placed his figures in deep perspectival space. In contrast to the circuitous networks of line, volume, pattern and colour that have heretofore filled his pictures, the landscape which stretched out behind the figure in Boardwalk Breeze was provisional in its content as well as its rendering; a wide swath of green stood in for the vegetation on the opposite shore of a lake or river, having been nonchalantly laid in between blocks of blue above and below it. All of these things bled into one another as the blue and green paint cascaded through the space of the painting, enlivening tensions between the canvas's vertical surface, and the deep space of the image set upon it.
Beige Infinity registered the apex of a transition in Brian Kokoska's work, from complexity into a significantly restricted lexicon. Whereas a strange mix of pleasure and uneasiness characterized my experience of his earlier work – simultaneously beautiful and cloy depictions of bacchanalian excess – this body of paintings circled in and around an opposition between writerly and readerly ease and difficulty, respectively. Here, high doses of pleasure were dialed down in favour of quieter images, which seemed well tuned into the uncomfortable banality of their human subject matter. In comparison with their progenitors, these paintings were purposefully mute. In that regard, they share an unwillingness to speak with the figures depicted within them, and elicit a quiet discomfort that is just as poignant as that which has accompanied more sensational works. Kokoska's movement into a decidedly relaxed mode structured by a highly attuned facility, is reminiscent of the easy and confident appearance of youthful skin gliding over the multiplex machinations of human bodies.
Mitch Speed is a writer and artist based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has contributed to Frieze Magazine and Canadian Art, and recently helped to launch a small run publication, called Setup.view all articles from this author