Los Angeles

Carl Ostendarp

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

Carl Ostendarp makes a joke of painting that, like the most biting kinds of humor, works by occupying two positions at once. His 3-D paintings (it’s impossible to suppress a smirk when calling them “reliefs”) dutifully fulfill the obligation of formalist abstraction: they’re frank about their framing edges, keenly aware of the difference between depicted and literal form, and determined to pack as much punch as possible into the diminished space of pictorial illusionism without violating the integrity of the picture plane. Evidence of their maker’s hand is inessential to their effect, as is the requirement that they represent anything more than their own materials and procedures. Although these dryly academic descriptions of Ostendarp’s paintings are accurate and true, they do not capture the physical experience of looking at his art.

Visiting an Ostendarp exhibition produces a range of sensations that can best be described as the feeling one might have upon stumbling into a giant early-’60s kitchen in middle America. Everything is clean and neat, but a little out of control, as if something unsavory lurked just beneath the surface. The colors on the walls fuse industrial-strength utility with domestic delicacy. Ostendarp’s lackluster lemon yellows have the presence of banana custard, but without the creaminess: flatter than flat, they seem to suck the light out of the room. More the color of consumer tests for new varieties of scented soaps, his mint-greens are too infected with an artificial luminescence to rest comfortably on the walls of a normal home or respectable institution. Next to mat expanses of washed-out avocado and globs of olive-drab flashe, Ostendarp’s greens take a turn for the perverse, almost taking your stomach with them. Subtle grays with hints of blue, stark whites with tinges of pink or glimpses of peach, as well as thin strips of rich, chocolate brown complete the mildly nauseating backdrops out of which the puffy forms of his abstract paintings bubble. If one weren’t amused by Ostendarp’s inedible confections, one would swear something sinister was taking place.

Humble Pie (all works 1992) looks like a proud cook’s favorite creation come back to haunt and humiliate him. Sliding off the rectangular painting’s nondescript surface, its central foam urethane blob looks like a dessert that didn’t rise when it was meant to, and now cannot be chiseled from the pan it sticks to with suspicious tenacity. Other paintings contain elements that uncannily resemble oversized Nilla Wafers, (Lowdown); the “Thin Mint” variety of Girl Scout Cookies (It’s a Shame); wads of bubble gum stuck under the counters in diners (What’s Next to the Moon); the stale, boxed candies theaters used to serve (Shot in the Dark); mutant pancakes (Untitled), and puddles of ice cream that won’t melt completely because their artificial preservatives work too well (Mighty Mighty).

Even more than these double-edged forays into the intersection between abstract art and junk-food culture, Cold Gin (The Lime Tree Bower) delights in holding these worlds together without collapsing one into the other. Out of the neat seam that separates a nearly 5-by-10-foot pink field from its creamy white border spills a surplus of thick, chocolate-frosting-like matter that straddles the gap between the painter’s studio and the cook’s kitchen.

Ostendarp’s art is funny and compelling not because it attempts to bring these realms closer together, but because it respects the distance between them. His Pop-Modernism gives humorous physical form to the absurdity of pretending that either arena adequately accounts for the most interesting kind of experience—one between the constraints of formalism and the kitsch of the quotidian.

David Pagel