Alex Kwartler: Tenuous survivalism

Alex Kwartler, installation view at Magenta Plains

Contributed by Sharon Butler / In “Snowflake,” Alex Kwartler’s recent show at Magenta Plains, small-scale paintings captured the desultory emotional tenor of 2017. Compared with his earlier exhibitions, which featured a lively, large-scale abstractions alongside smaller black pictograph-like images and explored notions about surface and spontaneity, the work on view this year appears slow, dark, and extremely deliberate.

Alex Kwartler, Snowflake (To the Harbormaster, for ML), 2018, oil and pumice on canvas, 14 x 11 inches

The title of the show references an epithet, originally hurled at coddled millennials, that Trump trolls adopted to level at anyone deemed too sensitive—primarily liberals—during the 2016 presidential campaign. Many of the paintings in the show feature kaleidoscope-like shapes, formed from combining outline images of people carrying bags and rolling suitcases (“schleppers”). Dark gray outlines against cool white fields, both with matte surfaces, absorb light rather than giving anything back. The schleppers seem imprinted on the surface rather than brushed, and together the figures form crude snowflake-like forms with empty star or badge shapes in the center of the canvases.

Alex Kwartler, Alex Kwartler, Penny III, 2018, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches

Kwartler has adopted a range of different approaches for the current work. Several pieces are made on canvasboard and displayed behind glass in black wooden frames, a strategy more commonly used for photographs than painting. By arraying the paintings in this way, Kwartler creates distance from the artist’s touch and imparts a sense that they are valued relics from the past. Two of the paintings, Celebration! (After Childe Hassam)and Apotheosis (with tuna), have metallic disks from the tops of tuna cans embedded in them, with the 2020 sell-by date clearly stamped on their surfaces. In another untitled painting, a dense dark swirl, like a somber version of the background from a sixties psychedelic poster or the Time Tunnel vortex, is joined by a forlorn piece of popcorn, resting inside the glass at the bottom of the frame.

Alex Kwartler, installation view at Magenta Plains
Alex Kwartler, Snowflake (((The Werld, for DA))), 2018, oil and pumice on canvas, 14 x 11 inches
Alex Kwartler, installation view at Magenta Plains
Alex Kwartler, Snowflake (I’m Nobody! Who are you?, for MA), 2018, oil and pumice on canvas, 14 x 11 inches
Alex Kwartler, installation view at Magenta Plains
Alex Kwartler

Two more traditional paintings, Penny II and Penny III, feature white-on-white and grey-on-grey images of Lincoln pennies, dated 2016, that seem to be falling in the air as if during a coin toss. The close-neutral palettes are reminiscent of Luc Tuymans’ early still life and figure paintings. Several paintings, black-and-white like the images of the schleppers, present traditional (but melting) snowflake images crafted with a gritty combination of dark grey oil paint and pumice, evoking snow not at the beginning of the storm when it creates a magical landscape, but rather several weeks in, after the bright white becomes speckled with ash and soot.

In their deft and knowing dreariness, Kwartler’s new paintings challenge viewers to confront ugly, sad reality. They are poems about the delicate object that has survived, but just barely.

Alex Kwartler: Snowflake,” Magenta Plains, LES, New York, NY. Through June 17, 2018.

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