New York

Robert Zakanitch

Robert Miller Gallery

Robert Zakanitch is commonly called a pattern painter, and though he deals with repetitions of one motif, his use of an actual pattern is so far removed from anything repetitious and mechanical as to redefine the word. Zakanitch does not repeat as much as he breaks his own rules, using a motif only as a springboard for variation and nuance. Laying down a groundwork of a specific floral motif, he proceeds to counter accurate repetition with changes in color, brushwork and spatial references. Using anything from delicate, finicky nosegays to primeval foliage, he combines color with connotation, obliterating the notion of decoration completely.

Where the image itself threatens to become sweetly nostalgic he perverts it into gaudy sentiment so that nailpolish pinks and lipstick roses conjure up images of decay and seediness as much as they imply romance. Even the least aggressive canvas combines strong colors and shapes in unexpected and startling combinations that negate any idea of uniformity or superficiality. And the tightness and geometric perfection of most true pattern painters disappears in favor of a loose stroke, an almost folk-like dabbing of separate brushstrokes and an expressionist thickness of paint.

Contradictions abound throughout the work, and to describe the best canvases is to plunge into detailed description of interplays between positive and negative, flatness and form, predictability and surprise; in short, a sampler of classic painterly problems. Nightbloomer zeroes in on the primitive side of the foliage world, concentrating on blues and greens in a dark, leafy forest. Surrounded by a broad border, the “forest” pictured is a repeat of leaves varying from gray to intense green. Some leaves are sharply outlined in black; others are more subdued. Vague shapes recede behind black used only as background.

Destroying symmetry, each corner of the rectangular space presents the culmination of a logical series of changes occurring throughout the work, so that outlined leaf against pale background alternates with dense color areas, or concentrates on strokes of intruding rust tangled with the background black. Though each section in closeup would offer drastically different details, the actual shifts made in color or shape are imperceptible. Zakanitch does a good job. Painting with loose assurance, he incorporates the kind of control over basics expected from classical painters into a rawness appropriate to the present. Consider the boldness of his border in this same canvas—whereas the central rectangle is brooding, spatially complicated and tonally complex, it is surrounded by a casual border of tree-shaped outlines reminiscent of Christmas trees. Strict in its role as fence to the wild foliage it contains, the border precisely alternates a tree with a little configuration of bright red and green paint dabs, prominent against flat gray. The idea is totally incongruous, but the effect is to create a straightforward constant against which the complex central figuring can react, and remain contained.

This contrast between the complicated and the straightforward is repeated in Sour Root, where its effect on movement predominates. Again, variations in details move in and out of the pattern, and colors are consciously pitted against their own connotations. In a gently scalloped border, tiny pink flowers are placed on stripes changing from pale pink to what is best described as mint green. The particular shades used are unavoidably clichéd: candy-caned, nursery-rhymed pastels reeking of sweet innocence. And solidly contained within this disarming border is a slashing, diagonally moving mass of exotic, strange growth. With unidentifiable blossoms in intense colors moving through permutations of shape and shade, Zakanitch sets up his most daring use of pattern. Again, the border acts as a literal frame and as a frame of reference, freezing the central movement. The effect is stronger in this canvas than in those that are shaped (Hog, Copperseed). Where the canvas repeats the decorative shape of the border, Zakanitch uses the device of bringing in a break cut off by a straight line (in Hog two canvases are added on either end to form the elliptical sides.) Using the break in the canvas as a frame, colors and detail drop from the huge flowers of the central image, as well as from the border flowers. Dead center of the canvas the flowers are painted with broad swipes of color, against a busy background with wavy lines and occasional outlines; beyond the canvas break the flowers become bald white silhouettes against a plain ground. Though more arbitrary than Sour Root or Nightbloomer, the switch in treatment forms an additional contrast in the movement of the painting, again opposing the notion of flat surface repetition.

Zakanitch’s early color-field paintings seem to have heightened his awareness of how much movement and variation can take place within an abstract area. The subtleties in his changing motifs could only come from someone used to spending much time concerned with close-up details in the paint itself. Though the motifs chosen in many of the canvases (note the wallpaper patterns especially) may have given him temporary pause and restricted his explorations to a particular, seemingly nostalgic evocation, the more original, highly personal patternings of the latest work push his concern far away from the pattern-painters who draw inspiration from outside sources. Subjugated to a role as ingredient, rather than total content, the pattern is in some ways the least important part of his work.

Deborah Perlberg