For the past year, contemporary artist Alex Kwartler has been busy in his studio, surrounded by oversized, rectangular plywood boards, pigments, brushes, and Venetian plaster. He’s been working on two new bodies of paintings, each so distinct it may seem hard to imagine that they were produced by the same artist, much less that he created them simultaneously. The fruits of Kwartler’s labors are on view in “A Superficial Lyric,” his current solo exhibition at Nathalie Karg Gallery in New York.
The first group of works is ruled by the staccato visual rhythms of short, black dashes painted onto white grounds. These quick, energetic marks resolve into the outlines of figures, who appear to be on their way somewhere and hold bags, suitcases, or maybe buckets—the spareness of these compositions leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. One figure, for example, could be seen as a woman, her head turned away from the viewer, looking into a background of black lines that may be rain, city buildings, or a rural landscape. Perhaps she is rushing home with her shopping bags, or on her way to the train station with suitcases, or carrying buckets of water or milk in the countryside.
Kwartler’s second group of paintings is entirely abstract. To make them, he smeared pigmented, quick-drying Venetian plaster—historically used in fresco painting—onto plywood boards in great, expressive arcs. He then polished their surfaces to a reflective sheen. With these contemporary frescoes, the artist refers to methods and movements within the long tradition of his medium—including the ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance frescoes that once proliferated in homes, civic buildings, and churches, and the modern break with representation in favor of abstraction—while claiming a position entirely his own.