San Francisco

Sam Tchakalian

In the mid ’60s, when he was in his 30s, Sam Tchakalian hit upon the economically inflected abstract idiom that has served him ever since. It’s true that the basic look of his latest paintings is practically indistinguishable from the look of those of ten, or even twenty years ago, but a stabilized design—in Tchakalian’s case, of reduplicative troweled-on, canvas-wide bands of solid and/or blended color—needn’t imply any dearth in the ideas-and-passion department. Tchakalian has his design motif down pat the better to intuit and locate his passion; at least, that, rather than a sameness, is what you see when his pictures accomplish their utmost, with no loose ends.

Of the ten paintings and nine mono-prints in this show, all done between 1983 and ’87, roughly half reveal original ways that mellifluously applied knifeloads of two or three close-keyed colors can modify or heighten their mutual propensitites for atmosphere and light. Nearly all of the rest consolidate earlier finds and maintain a scrupulous dexterity. As diminutive pearls go, the monoprints, especially those in narrow horizontal formats, are the genuine article. In the works on canvas, when Tchakalian errs, it’s usually on the side of overreaching or haste or both; his exuberance can let a painting slip away or pull itself apart. The blue, red, and pink of Let’s Go Dancing, 1984, are pungent, but, through too willful handling (on the order of second thoughts), the image goes haywire and the whole painting ends up finicky. Another trouble area is titles: Tchakalian’s tend to undercut his pictures’ transcendent force with jokey, self-deprecating asides; thus, Bagel Time and Horse Feathers are tacked onto a couple of paintings (both from 1987) whose compacted strengths deserve more candid, if not necessarily loftier, annotations. On the other hand, the spellbinder of the show, Magic Door, 1987, delivers exactly what its title promises, and a thing or two extra: a billowing imminence.

At first glance, Tchakalian’s ridged and scooting trowel marks suggest that some tremendous slam-bang immediacy is in the offing. When it doesn’t arrive, there’s a small disappointment, but then you realize the pictures aren’t meant to provide that kind of virtuoso immediacy at all. Thick or thin, Tchakalian’s paint is more deliberate and evanescent than the welters of its surface activity let on. It communicates slowly and unevenly—stealthily, almost—by nuance. The parallel, panoramic sweeps establish an allover unified space that coordinates subtle distinctions, like poignant, though blurred recollections of the changes in weather on a particular day, rather than all-inclusive statements. Separately, a green streak and a pink underglow among the chrome-yellow zones of Tent Talk, 1983, spell “incident” much as drumrolls within the run-on rhythms of minimalist music. The pictures have their surface divisions the way people have arms and legs; their individual characters assume those attributes, but the fundamental dynamics of character come from elsewhere.

Similarly, you sense that whatever left its tracks across the girth of Magic Door wasn’t the hand or tool of the painter so much as an elemental power, whether a sudden gale or a millennial glacial shift. The edges of each taut horizontal sweep both contain and dispel notions of distance and depth. The light is assimilated like reflections of clouds on water or, even more, the reflection of a reflection—an afterimage.

Bill Berkson