I called from the street and then made my way up a few flights of stairs. This old building in Brooklyn is a working place, stuffed with “small businesses” – Asian men and women sewing piece goods in a loud crowded room on one floor. Another floor chocked full of electric machine tools ready to be used for fuck all. And as always in NY you’ll find a few artists’ studios filled with old paintings and half finished projects. Paul Corio had invited Michael Zahn, Dennis Bellone and me over for a studio visit. As usual I was running late – always…. Paul had been pulling out his works and lining them against the painting wall. Michael and Dennis had just finished the first round on the six pack and were deep in discussion about the last painting they’d seen. Artists tend to take studio visits deadly seriously especially among friends… I was happy to be there and looked about for signs of Paul’s studio life before really having a look at the work (I enjoy seeing how artists incorporate their lives into their work.) On a few table tops and shelves there were stacks of jars of paints, mixed and labeled in sequence, hues and values morphing from light to dark, precise and orderly. Used painters’ tape was scrunched into balls discarded here and there. I thought it was wonderful – a working production studio filled with 21st Century electrically colored paintings contrasted by a bank of windows looking northward over a view of Brooklyn’s 19th and 20th Century manufacturing detritus. Glorious.
As I was looking at Paul’s paintings I kept thinking about his blog postings on No Hassle at the Castle and the post he did here on Henri about his painting processes and studio life. Numbers and patterns are extremely important to Paul. He is interested in the specific mathematics of horse racing and betting. Paul is also a jazz musician, a drummer to be precise, and for me all of these things come across in his work in a very specific way. His vision is connected to rhythms and time, color, space, pattern, movement. Paul has a real way of involving the viewer across the surfaces of his works using specific kinds of optical repetitions. The paintings become physical and direct through their temporal movements. Color fades in and out and then turns on a dime into its compliment. The geometries break into packets, keeping time in moments of explosive visual energy. He’s constantly building signatures through these algorithms, pushing the viewer along to his visual beat. Christ, you can feel your body start to move as you look – I caught myself bobbing my head to these back beats a couple of times. It’s hard not to feel time slip and slide in front of Paul’s paintings. But there’s more going on here than music. His imagery pushes into the ground, exaggerating the pulsing efficiency of his colors. What you begin to feel as you look and follow is your own subjectivity sliding into this time frame. The visual experience is sharp, electric and thorough.
Paul has pushed back the literal optical surfaces and mannered surfaces of the 1960s. He’s playing with the idea of a deeper illusion – taking these algorithms and floating them against and above the expanding ground. In the most successful works Paul reaches for something darker and more emotional in his patterns. Unlike the Postmodern appropriation critiques of the 80s and 90s based on geometric/op abstractions (for example like those found in the work of Bleckner or Armleder), Paul examines a more direct idea of a visual and transcendent painting unmoored from irony. Rather than critique a style, keeping us at a distance, his illusions push the geometric patterns further and deeper into our consciousness, involving us in the rhythms. These paintings represent a kind of faith in the constant flow of repetition and movement that defines our world. The visual impetus behind the work is more Modern than Postmodern. There are no pretty bows or glittering curtains of material painted on the surfaces to hold us back from a direct physical vision. Paul is demanding that we engage in these rhythms and patterns and feel how they move us in this particular moment. In some paintings he raises this geometric imagery just above the ground allowing the subject to float and pulse there before our eyes. We are uplifted, transported out of our material concerns. And this is where Paul breaks with the Postmodern. His work is not held to the ground. Paul is fucking with those surfaces, reaching over the optical billboard to grasp older ideas of visual conflict and consternation – those Modernist concerns related to pattern, decoration, and transcendence. What he’s getting at is the fragility of vision in the optical overload of our time.
What was truly impressive, what really stuck with me was the large black painting that Paul let rest against the wall. It kept drawing me back in. I had only seen it in reproduction, but in person it hums and vibrates in a very dark and moving way. I kept feeling a kind of landscape like one sees in Asian paintings – where the eye travels along the length or width of the painting. You watch the world fade into the light and mist and then reappear further back, like you’re moving along space through time. This dark painting plays on that kind of temporality as it keeps regenerating – top becomes bottom, bottom top. Paul’s rhythms catch and break, and that’s when he pulls the shifting ground out from beneath you. You begin to feel that you’re upside down, folded back on yourself. I thought of Jasper Johns’ paintings that push the words and images around the sides of his canvases making the viewer realize that he’s stepped into an endless loop, there’s no escape. Again, there isn’t a hint of irony, not a bit of “aside” or commentary. This is a first person experience, fast, slow, broken and whole.
Lately Paul’s work has taken on the corporate, the logo, the straightforward presentation of power. What’s really interesting in these “word” works is the way Paul has skewed the visual approach and impact. We don’t see the work straight on, it’s as if he’s moved the perspective to one side to show us the optical workings beneath the logo and the program. They fly past us, breaking into geometric codes as they do. The program is false in these works, and once we catch that fakery, we quickly find another vision within it. The works take us back into our own understanding of color, light, space and time outside of and through the programmatic corporate vision. For me these paintings are hopeful, joyful and alive. And in a new clever twist Paul re-presents this work within a work. He’s doubling down on his bet against Postmodern irony, appropriating his own work, his own studio into a painting within and about the studio and himself. He’s patterning the flows of both his creative experience and his work-a-day life, documenting and glorifying the temporal space of that studio. It’s a very clever 21st Century self portrait – like Matisse’s Red Studio – a painting of the studio as a doppleganger for the artist himself.
We no longer speak of transcendence with any seriousness here in the 21st century. Most artists are content to make a work that looks good, that says something passably intelligent. Usually it’s not that personal, or that deep, but it looks good, you know? We have tons of work that does just that, stacked to the rafters in the Chelsea galleries. But Paul is looking for something else. He wants to get at an experience of visual contact, communication, and in that way, he’s quintessentially American, wholly himself. He’s reaching back to a tradition of abstraction that begins with Cezanne and culminates with Rothko and Newman. His vision is connected to a more physical and literal visual experience of the geometric and abstract, emotion and vision. You get a similar feeling standing in Paul’s studio – the heady mixture of brilliant color and fast pattern, the clash of time and history going on out the window – it’s a sense of place, solid and ephemereal at once. Paul wants you to see, to feel, experience in a visceral way and in that, his work embodies our great American Romantic visual tradition.