New York

Paul Pagk

CRG Gallery

Paul Pagk knows the truth; you can follow the lines on his canvases straight (more or less) to the heart of it. You know the truth, too, even if you try to forget every now and again. The truth is that the Institution permeates our existence so completely that it is all but invisible, so completely that we hardly notice it at all anymore. Like air, like water—there are alternatives, but none of them are very practical, at least not for now. So, wherever we look, we invariably find that the institution is already there, waiting for us, arms outstretched.

Which is not to say that any of this is bad, necessarily: there’s no embrace quite like the institutional embrace. It is warm and all encompassing; in its cool serenity it brings a kind of forgetfulness. And unlike most significant others, the institution almost never shouts (why bother when a whisper will do?) only murmurs quietly that there is nothing new under the sun, nothing new ever again—words that remain as comforting, as disquieting, now as they ever were.

Of course, no art form is better suited to transmitting that soft voice than painting: it’s a child of the institution itself, has been for ages. Geometric abstraction in particular has always been beloved of banks and hospitals and other official sites. It showed the institution the face it wanted to see: cold clean lines, hard sharp geometries. In Pagk’s paintings though, we see the face we always knew was there: isolated broken and curving lines, fractured geometries, everything endlessly crossing and recrossing itself. Until the paintings look like nothing so much as the little maps on institutional walls, lines leading into little cul-de-sacs that lead everywhere and nowhere at once. All of them lacking, always, the little arrow that says “you are here.” Because nobody knows for sure. And if the picture looks a little worn—surface scraped raw here, mistake sanded out there—it’s only because the institution looks that way, too.

The best part of the institution, though, is that it comes in colors; Pagk knows the truth about that, too. So all his paintings come in institutional colors: those weird bilious greens (to calm you down); those bright-but-oddly-muted-oranges that are supposed to make you happy; the yellows that only turn up in hospitals and prisons and children’s Palmer Method workbooks. And one is bright, bright, red, the kind of red so beloved by the makers of children’s toys and the people who decorate pediatric wings of hospitals. Taken altogether, the paintings constitute a kind of decorating scheme for the institution, as if Pagk were the interior designer at Kafka’s Castle, mining memory and received wisdom alike for just the right look.

And if today, we occasionally doubt the Castle’s power—it’s old, it’s falling apart, all the directions are useless, and no one ever answers the door—Pagk’s paintings serve to remind us that there’s never been anyone home, but the Castle’s still there. Which only makes all of the maps and mirrors more essential.

Mark Van de Walle