Richard Kalina

Elizabeth McDonald Gallery

Richard Kalina’s work uses the vocabulary of Purism, the post-Cubist art developed after World War I by Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, as the visual and conceptual springboard for a plastic language very much of his own invention. Purism has often been considered a kind of stylized, conservative offspring of Cubism, a retreat from that movement’s radical approach to reality. Using the classic components of Purism—abstract planar elements, and still-life objects with full geometric forms and smoothly flowing contours—Kalina shows how the style instead embodies a high point in the desire for a synthesis in art between the real and the ideal. That desire for a reconciliation of art and life was strong among the different avant-gardes of the teens and ’20s, and remains embedded in the creative sensibility of the present. It is strikingly demonstrated, for example, in the recent paintings by Kalina that were shown here.

The work has a dynamic graphic aspect, which is heightened by Kalina’s decision to work exclusively in black, white, and a rich range of gray tonalities. In Palindrome, 1987, the starkness of the painting’s achromatic surface serves as a kind of optical hook, if you will, drawing the eye to the precise, rhythmic arrangements of form and space. The canvas is relatively small, but Kalina has packed it with information. The composition is additive in structure. It is divided into a grid of four equal parts plus a smaller, central square, which occupies the inmost corner of each of the larger sections. At the upper left is a still-life ensemble of bowls, cups, and other containers, each motif executed in flat white outline on an all-black ground. To the right, an arrangement of horizontal and vertical black bars is set like a scaffold against a white ground. The bottom two panels contain, to the left, against a white ground, an overlapped grouping of still-life objects similar to those directly above it, but here modeled in shades of gray, to suggest their volume; and to the right, against a black ground, a variety of overlapping rectangles in white and different shades of gray. At the common border of any two neighboring quadrants the motifs interconnect, so that each seems to turn into the other. Such linkages are underscored by the central square, painted in a checkerboard pattern that restates the alternating blacks and whites of the larger grid. Palindrome affirms that the universe can accommodate a multiplicity of different views of things.

The same idea appears in several of the other paintings, including Source, 1988, and Translation and Summary, 1987. In Palindrome, and Source in particular, the message builds in a syncopated way: the image’s first appeal is immediate, occurring in fast-time, but as the viewer gradually absorbs the formal aspects of the work, considerations of content come more to the fore. These paintings communicate through extended moments as well as instantaneously.

The most overtly idea-encoded, even diagrammatic work here was Source. The composition involves a series of analytical replications of a single still-life ensemble, which is shown in black outline on the left, and upside down and reversed on the right. The objects are repeated as isolated pairs scattered over the central field, and, as in Palindrome, painted to gain the illusion of volume that they lack in the flanking outline drawings. In case you don’t get it, two crisscrossing broken lines indicate the relationship between the two still-life ensembles. Counteracting the scheme’s formal quality is the warmth of the work’s surface—for example, in the way the traces of Kalina’s energetic brushstrokes fill the white central ground with vivid accents of energy. The intelligent, purposeful presence of this and others among Kalina’s paintings fills the mind with provocative reflections.

Ronny Cohen