When Paintings Hang Fire
Barry Schwabsky | London 2004
There is a stillness to many of Gary Komarin’s recent paintings, a sense of something becalmed that might recall the work of a painter for whom he has expressed great regard, namely Giorgio Morandi. Rarely in these canvases, for instance, will one encounter the axial dynamics typical of such otherwise seemingly dissimilar examples of modernist abstractions as Malevich’s Suprematist compositions and Pollock’s poured paintings. More to the point, in this regard, might be the looming color-chords of Mark Rothko but also the lumpen imagery typical of the late work of Komarin’s teacher Philip Guston – abstract or representational figures that inhabit pictorial space with stubborn persistence. Indeed, the spatial sensibility evidenced in Komarin’s paintings is more akin to that in Guston’s than to any of the other artists I’ve mentioned, Morandi included, in that they both go further than the others in assimilating space and surface. An artist like Rothko could almost be said to have revived the 19th century academy’s idea of transparent surface, an effulgence capable of flowing outward from the painting to envelop the viewer and open up a depth that one can slowly sink into.
Such fluidity is not Komarin’s way. The scrubbly, almost coarse-grained surface of his painting seems to call it’s forms to linger there, to “hang fire” – a phrase I always find especially striking when it occurs, as happens more than be expected, in the fiction of Henry James, perhaps because his stories really are so often so much about just this experience of having to hesitate, to inhabit the realm of the unresolved, the unsettled. The phrase is an old one, of martial origin, from the days when arms were loaded by pouring a gunpowder charge, which was then ignited by a spark from a flint striking against an iron plate: It is, literally, “to be slow in the explosion of a charge after its primer has been discharged, “ as my dictionary tells me; it thus refers to a potentially or incipiently explosive capacity that is still on the way to becoming manifest. This quality in Komarin’s work, its tendency to hang fire, is quite at odds with the dominant trend in contemporary painting where quick, frictionless, “efficient” surface tends to be most valued, perhaps too often resulting in a phenomenon named by an even more familiar phrase that signifies the opposite of a shot that hangs fire, namely, a flash in the pan: powder burning so quickly and intensely that the charge never has a chance to ignite.
Hanging Fire, Komarin’s paintings affirm the potentially explosive character of aesthetic experience, but always in the future tense, never the verifiable past or even the eternal present of Morandi’s bottles or Guston’s clocks, shoes, and Klansmen. The recurrent recognizable forms that used to turn up in his paintings – a noose, a wig, and other simple pictograms – are less in evidence now, as if his old game of humoring ( and thereby subtly mocking) the viewer’s yearning for something graspable by offering something too obvious to be convincing were no longer indispensable. I detect a more take -it -or- leave -it attitude in these blunt forms that no longer appear to be bluntly something-in -particular. More like mere patches of color than proper shapes, gestures that have more to do with effacing form than with constructing it, they frankly avail themselves of the evasive capacity of abstraction as a value in itself. It’s as if, in the face of the continued and incessant demand that art display meaning, Komarin had decided instead to display deferral. A painting like his Natural Selection, for instance, seems gripped by a sort of fervor of self-restraint that is not exactly the pure inwardness of Romantic aesthetics but rather a determination to be seen kicking over its own traces. Of course, Natural Selection represents merely one pole in the spectrum of Komarin’s recent work, where it is joined by others like Numbering, Tightrope, or a painting whose very title seems to aspire to an ultimate in reticence, Innocent of What (possibly referring to, and if so, outdoing, a title Jasper Johns gave one of his paintings, According to What, 1964). The other pole would be represented by more overtly energetic paintings like The Bowman Sixpence, The Pectoral Fin, or The National Sizing Survey, in which what might at first appear to be a sort of demonstrative gesture of Expressionist stamp finally seem more concerned to contain their own theatrical potential to exploit it. Even in the most extrovert of these paintings, there remains a sort of reticence that allows the passions they communicate to keep smoldering at length, rather than to spend themselves in bravado – that allows them to hang fire.