New York

Paul Pagk

Thread Waxing Space

Paul Pagk’s abstract paintings show that the renewal of painting depends upon the renewal of what is fundamental to it: primitive sensory experience articulated through texture and elementary structure. The former is innate to surface, the latter marks it as the universal ground of presentation. Painting can never die as long as what pyschoanalyst Thomas Ogden calls “the autistic-contiguous mode” of experience, through which the subject first integrates sensory input, remains basic to all experience. At its best painting evokes “the rhythm of sensation” that forms the fundament of our self. The ground of experience is “sensory contiguity”—connections between “sensory surfaces ‘touching’ one another.” Those who are sick and tired of painting are sick and tired of what is most fundamental in their sensory experience. Their insensitivity suggests its anxious repression, if not an underdeveloped, perhaps even constitutionally shallow, sensibility.

The value of Pagk’s work comes from his seamless, surgically precise fusion of two tendencies basic to contemporary abstract painting. One is the attempt to create a surface that seems artificially invented and manufactured yet handmade, and, as such, organic. In this way he acknowledges that it has become increasingly hard to differentiate one from the other. Touch has changed, because the sensory surface of the world has been changed—perhaps radically—through technology. The other tendency is the attempt to create a kind of structure that is not a structure—a paradoxical structure in that all the elements look as though they should connect and come together in a whole, or at least stand in harmonious rhythmic relationship, but they do not. They are radically discontinuous despite superficial similarities, a reflection of the institutionalized discontinuities of post-Modern existence. The idea of coherent, let alone universal, organization has become absurd. There are simply oblique resemblances within the overall nonsystem. What was once thought of as a totalitarian administrative society has broken down into numerous fiefdoms that may formally resemble one another but hardly share a common cause.

Pagk shows post-Modernist indifference to the principle of unity in the way he lines up geometrical elements (each a stylized sensory surface) that look like they ought to form a coherent whole but are parts that do not fit together—and never did because there never was any whole to begin with. The entropic degeneration of the overall monochromatic field on which Pagk’s broken geometry rests is made manifest in these paintings. (They look quirkier, because of their isolation, than they in fact are.) Compared to the matrix of subtly active sensations of Modernist field painting, Pagk’s field looks passive and disengaged. His abandoned structure shows us what lies beyond Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella, his dry-ice touch what lies beyond Jackson Pollock and Robert Ryman.

Pagk’s works look Minimalist, but they are not. Where Minimalism worked with intelligible gestalts, Pagk’s geometry is irreparably unintelligible. His geometrical pieces are the ruins of a gestalt that, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together again. The lack of connection between them makes for a peculiar esthetic disorientation, but then again his disconnectedness lurches to the autistic side of autistic-contiguous experience, renewing it through the backdoor.

Donald Kuspit