Thomas Kovachevich

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

Thomas Kovachevich’s performances are rehearsals for his paintings. The defining process of both is the response of paper to hydrologic principles—how circles, squares, or triangles cut out of tracing paper react to humidity, temperature, and other atmospheric conditions. In the performances Kovachevich places his geometric characters onto a bright-colored fabric “stage” draped across the surface of the water that fills a shallow tray. Once the pieces of paper touch the stage they dance, curl, sway, bend, and swoon in choreographed pieces given such titles as Is it a solo or a duet? and Two versions of the same story. Sometimes Kovachevich applies makeup and costumes to his dancers—a touch of pastel or a bit of string, for example, in a piece called Bound Trapezoids. The bits of paper come to life like the transformed objects in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and the artist becomes the magician. What is so magical in these minimal, quiet performances, where the only sounds are the sighs and crackles of the paper forms as they dance, is how quickly the audience becomes engaged in the action on the stage, how it identifies with the characters and how it attributes anthropomorphic qualities to them. When a character becomes too soaked to continue moving, it is a metaphor for death. The inability of two actors in a duet to touch, the domination of one form over another—all becomes amazingly charged with psychological reverberations. Tiny dramas of human interaction have been exposed by the artist, who waits in the wings and dims the lights when the show is over.

The paintings, about four feet square, are the trays displaced from their original horizontal stage format to vertical positions on the wall. Instead of water monochromatic homogenized pools of liquid acrylic (now dry) have activated and captured papers now caught in their final gestures. The paintings are as heavy-looking, as frozen and historical, as the performances are delicate, lively, and ephemeral. These works operate on two levels: as monumental memories of a process, and as highly colored, emphatically physical abstract paintings whose positive forms are applied like collage. What is a dance in the performances becomes here the process by which the painting is made.

The painter/director/scientist is the solitary audience for this sci-art amalgam. He pours the acrylic onto a tray, swirls it around, and then lets his geometric characters transport the pigment across the surface. A triangle cut out of tracing paper will carry a line to a corner; a square will haul a blotch of pigment, as the forms paint themselves according to patterns that Kovachevich has observed and catalogued. Working with his repertory of “classic stories,” Kovachevich choreographs with his choices of variables—paper, direction of cut, geometrical shape, and temperature; an adventitious element, chance, interacts with the other factors. By heating the acrylic the painting process is speeded up, causing the characters to act out their scripts and fulfill their destinies more quickly. There are parallels between the poignancy of the performance and the resulting painting. In R’s R, for example, a large white square of paper is a raft in a pale-gray field of pigment; clustered along its edges are a chorus of smaller pastel-colored squares, holding on for dear life to the central geometry. In the bright-green painting Jungle Smart, a small circle of paper has been trapped and come to rest curled at the edge of a large major circle whose surface is slashed by a strip of green paint escaping from the ground.

Questions arise when one ponders the narrative texture of the paintings apart from their origins as performance. Where Jackson Pollock’s actions constituted his paintings in a way that implied the indefinite continuation of his activity into the observer’s space and experience, Kovachevich’s intention is resigned and paradoxical. His motivation to make a painting that is intended to be read as a fossil revealing earlier atmospheric conditions is strangely undercut by the fact that he continues to give performances. Without the performances these performed paintings would keep their energetic mode of creation secret, congealed and hidden in viscous pigment. Kovachevich freezes the final moment, the epilogue of his narrative, hoping that the vitality of the paper will be renewed in an archaeological process carried out by the viewer. The attractive conceptual subtlety of Kovachevich’s work does not always emerge from the molten trays. But the one canvas in this exhibition, Frozen Still (59-by-95 inches), in which a giant spill of white paint carries two sets of circles, squares, and triangles across a black field, references its link to film freezes. In the future Kovachevich intends to use video and film to record his performances, and has in fact already photographed individual characters as pinups or film stills.

Using all the qualities of painting—color, form, flat surface—with dashes of moisture and chance, Kovachevich seems to be trying as hard as possible to make paintings that are not paintings, or maybe to prove that a scientific interplay of paper and moisture in a theatrical metaphor can make a painting. The annexation of extra-artistic means, the move from the transient to the permanent, are well-known strategies. It is as if Kovachevich, who began making these paintings in 1978, is attempting to come back into the fold of object-makers at the very moment when the end of Modernist painting, which these paintings resemble, is once again being proclaimed. When seen as artifacts, all paintings reveal their technique, mode of construction, and particular slice of history; but the crackling and warping that supply those clues are central to Kovachevich’s works. In this show, the most succinct and telling statement of Kovachevich’s intentions was subtly displayed in a three-part piece called The Guardians. An eight-inch circle, square, and triangle cut from Kraft paper were pinned high on an unadorned wall. During the exhibition these forms curled and shifted ever so slightly, moving according to the same forces that carry the paint across the canvas, the characters across the watery stage. The softspoken Guardians are Kovachevich’s most direct expression of the discovery and quiet originality that animates his art.

Judith Russi Kirshner