Mark Puchala, Residule Tingles
Nov. 4th to Dec. 16th, 2017
Galerie Youn, Montreal Quebec
By ANDY PAYNE, NOV. 2017
As an interested observer of Mark Puchala’s development over the last several years, I have been struck by its accelerated and protean character. Over this period, the work has tacked convincingly between three distinct vectors in twentieth and twenty-first century painting: gestural expressionism, particularly as represented by the asemic scrawlings of Cy Twombly; the post-Pop appropriations of media iconography to be found in painters like Sigmar Polke and David Salle; and the outsider art of Jean Dubuffet, Antonin Artaud, and Michel Nedjar. In a lesser talent, the result would be at once unfocussed and derivative, but what binds together Puchala’s restless peregrinations through the history of modern and contemporary painting is his single-minded preoccupation with the tension between real flatness and apparent depth that a painted surface
inevitably evinces and the fruits of that preoccupation have so far proven to be quite singular.Despite the fact that Puchala burns through painterly idioms the way most painters burn through socks, a Mark Puchala is unmistakably a Mark Puchala.
I remember vividly Puchala’s solo exhibition at Jamie Angell Gallery in May 8 of 2014 - my first significant encounter with his art. The work exhibited a “wild pictorialism” in which the picture was typically produced by the superimposition—a la Polke -- of one image over another so as to create a kind of virtual depth, an ambiguous “in-between” space in which both images began to lose their spatial bearings. The iconography of these paintings integrated wittily references from both art history and contemporary consumer culture—A.R. Penk meets Spongebob, to recall Puchala’s off-handed quip at the opening. Alongside the formal considerations they provoke, these superimpositions also suggested a fascination with the unconscious process by which one iconographic element comes to be paired with another: “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” to follow Lautréamont’s unforgettable formulation.
A newcomer to Puchala’s imaginative landscape, I assumed that this was simply how he rolled. Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into Weird Freedom, his show at Mark Christopher Gallery sixteen months later. Weird or not, what Puchala seemed to be freeing himself from at this juncture was precisely the quirky, polyglot pictorialism that had distinguished previous work. In these new paintings, Puchala began by laying down a series of milky washes in black, white, and grey so as to create a spatial field that had a degree of virtual depth and translucency reminiscent of the effects achieved through encaustic technique. He then selectively removed bands of colour with a jet stream of compressed water to reveal the canvas beneath. The spindly lattices and diagrammatic arabesques produced by the removal of paint seemed to float ambiguously on top of the monochrome color clouds, giving the work a spectral quality reminiscent of x-ray photographs or early experimental cinema. Consistent with his earlier work is the preoccupation with superimposition as a technique designed to produce ambiguous effects of spatial depth. What is new is the decision to release himself from the burdens of depiction so as to pursue painting as an auto-figurative process in which what the painting brings to appearance in its ‘deep-flat space’ is nothing other than its own power to render visible. As Puchala remarked to me in a studio visit shortly after this show, painting had become for him the cartography of a territory that did not exist until he mapped it.
Given this drift away from the pictorial impulse, Puchala’s current exhibition at Galerie Youn, Residual Tingles, offers still another surprise. Indeed, it offers several, branching out from the previous work in multiple directions. Not only has the pictorializing impulse—which it is tempting to imagine as the residual pleasure alluded to in this exhibition’s gnomic title—returned; it has returned in a diversity of media. Alongside the middle- and large-scale paintings familiar from earlier shows, this exhibition also includes a sculptural work and three mixed media works on paper. This in itself is significant, given how single-mindedly Puchala has thus far pursued the technical challenges and optical enigmas that attach to the painted image.
Let’s start with the paintings in the current exhibition, of which there are seven. Eschewing both the transluscent pastels that dominate the untitled Angell exhibition and the ascetic monochromes of Weird Freedom, Puchala renders the somewhat cartoonish figures that populate these new works in bold primaries (red, blue, green) and the subtle color gradations that distinguished the application of paint in earlier works is replaced by a strong, even application of pigment. Whereas the figures in earlier paintings seemed to float above and across one another like chromatic clouds, here they are placed in dramatic, even jarring apposition, highlighted by the bold outlining of the figures in black. At a glance, the paintings call to mind the patchwork of brightly colored and boldly outlined expanses to be found on the maps that filled your grade school atlas. What is retained from earlier work is the ambiguous push and pull between effects of flatness and depth. What is different is that now these effects rely more heavily on the unexpected and ambiguous apposition of graphic elements. What is more, the graphic sensibility has shifted subtly. Here the facile verisimilitude of the advertising illustration, parodied in early works, has been replaced by a cartoonish, even childish hand, at once shaky and strangely assured. The humour and penchant for unconscious association, a consistent feature of all Puchala’s work to date, is still very much in evidence, not least in the titles that he chooses: Safeword Menthol, Hot Garbage, Upper Thigh, etc.
The mixed media works on paper, which are in fact paintings of a sort, pursue the concerns familiar from earlier work to novel effect. Puchala’s work generally evinces a certain sprezzatura, but here the off-handed, anti-try-hardy ethos is taken to the limit. Hey look at me I just printed out some images I found on the internet and then doodled on them and guess what, its art. Guess what. It is. In both works, Puchala digitally manipulates his found images, blurring them and heightening their opacity, so as then to inscribe a complex graphic figure in water-based house paint on top. The results are striking. The use of housepaint yields significant formal dividends, as unlike oil paint, which bleeds into the canvas, house paint just sits there, lending a special clarity to the top figure, which seems to floats over the blurry background to which it has been added. In Untitled One, the effects are largely optico-geometrical, a primary yellow squiggle—post-industrial parody of Medieval luxe?—unfurls across the blurry-checkerboard pattern above which it hovers, creating a vaguely Op-art effect.
In “Real Bricks,” by contrast, the charge is decidedly more semiotic and cultural. In this case, the found image that serves as ‘background’ is a photograph of Scottie Pippen tackling Bill Laimbeer in a game that, to judge from the roughness of the play, probably dates from the 90s, so that the image has a decidedly nostalgic tone. Over this image, Puchala has drawn freehand in black acrylic housepaint an orthogonal grid, a somewhat primitive depiction of masonry construction. There is a visual wit akin to Oldenberg here, as the spectral gauze or veil through which Puchala would have us view the photographic image is decked out in lineaments that depict the opacity and material density of a brick wall. Oldenberg is also clearly in the background of Modular Basketball Sculpture, in which a pile of cloth constructions mimic the shape of semi-flacid basketballs. I confess that of the works in this exhibition, this last work, though successful on its own terms, strikes me as the least daring from the standpoint of form and technique, the most tangentially related to the concerns of earlier works, and, as a result, the least compelling piece in the show. At this point, I harbour doubts as to whether Puchala can achieve the same levels of technical assurance and virtuoso invention in three dimensions that he has in two. But then, he’s been known to surprise me. At all events, he’s an artist whose mercurial trajectory has rewarded, and no doubt will continue to reward, our careful attention. WM
Andy Payne's work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals devoted to architecture and the visual arts, including Public, Praxis, and Harvard Design Magazine. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Beauty’s Edge: On the Fortunes of Ornament in Western Culture.view all articles from this author