Thomas Pihl: Paintings

by Donald Goddard


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The paintings, mostly 48 by 60 inches but some smaller, are hung low so that the eyes of a viewer who is 5 feet, 10 inches (myself) are at about the top edge, or slightly below it, and scanning is downward from there, unless you are a good deal shorter, rather than from the center outward.

Thomas Pihl Paintings
© Thomas Pihl

The bottom edge is around the knees. Horizontal rather than vertical, landscapes rather than figures, meditative rather than immersive or overwhelming, they are about the size of Rothko's dour late paintings, anchored in unknowingness though not admitting its irreconcilable finality. They are, in other words, available to the person looking at them; they drop from the eyes like veils, or tears.

Prearticulation
© Thomas Pihl 2001
Prearticulation
, 2000-2001. Acrylic paint on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

Pihl makes no images, unlike Jackson Pollock, who buried his under skeins of consciousness; or Ad Reinhart, who structured his "monochrome" fields with grids, which themselves are images; or Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman, whose shapes are also images, defining spaces apart, but of the mind or being. Pihl has eliminated images, or perhaps, as Petrea Frid suggests in her perceptive introduction to the show's catalogue, what we know has been blended together: ". . . , the images that surround us everyday have been stripped of their representational noise and adherent messages so that their essential aesthetic qualities are laid bare." In their seeming perfection, Pihl's seductive amalgams of unnamable colors (colors that were both named and fashionable in the 1990s) undermine those "images that indiscriminately push aesthetic perfection in order to bypass our feelings of discomfort and alienation." Pihl hopes for imperfection, in his words, "to allow the experience and perception of these wounds and irregularities, as well as an intended visual tension to surface and grow with time."

From Prearticulation Series
© Thomas Pihl 2001
Prearticulation
, 2000-2001. Acrylic paint on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

Notions of perfection and imperfection have a curious history, the former prominent in periods of classicism, that latter prized particularly in modern times, in Dada and Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and performance art. But now something else has happened. There is a sense that perfection is inescapable, that there is nothing if not perfection, that what we create is necessarily superior to what we are. Even Pihl says, "The inspiration for my work is observing how every surface in New York has been culturally and aesthetically manipulated and controlled," whereas until quite recently New York was perceived as a vast series of accidents. The fiery furnaces and mechanized noise of the industrial age, much less natural sunlight and the sounds of the earth, have been replaced by electronic light and noise and by the need for form and color modulated to or produced by that system, by television, by computers. By definition, the forms and colors that fit those parameters do not have imperfections. Because it operates in measurable units, however minute, a computer can never produce an imperfection--a mistake, yes, but not an imperfection. But even imperfections are perfect, as in some hair styles.


Prearticulation Paintings
© Thomas Pihl 2001
Prearticulation
, 2000-2001. Acrylic paint on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

So Pihl strives to create conditions in which imperfection can exist. The paintings have the appearance of paintings. They are paint (acrylic with pigment) on rectangular canvases. But they are poured rather than painted. There are no brushstrokes, and the artist's gestures count for nothing in determining the imperfections and complexity of the work. They are called "Prearticulations," which indicates something that takes place before speech (or brushstroke) is available. As many as ten layers are poured, acrylic with a range of traditional colors and large quantities of black and white. Some marks are made along the edge like borders or, in one case, a very vague smaller rectangle in the center of the canvas. The surfaces are absolutely hard and smooth but they contain a firmament of incidents, of bubbles that have popped in the acrylic leaving tiny craters, of smooth ripples, of vague dots of color, the results of process, the dynamics of the materials rather than the movement of hand and brain. But the absolutely amazing phenomenon of these works is that they are instruments of memory--they contain life. One looks into them, not as a perspective or other kind of illusion, but literally into them, through transparent layers that are not even perceptible as layers, just as one looks into one's own past. Color shifts and changes, and it is not clear what color one is looking at anyway, but there is a palpable substance to the depth. Something is stirring, not just captured as in garnet or aspic, but stirring and moving. And the size and position of the works on the wall compacts that vision within our own aura of perception. Strangely, or perhaps inevitably, it is a parallel field of vision to that contained in a video or computer screen.

Donald Goddard © 2001


The exhibition was on view at Thomas Erben Gallery, 516 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011.

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