New York

Prudencio Irazabal

How unexpected to find a painter who not only transcribes the earnest intellectual/formal issues of the art of the 1960s with a flash and seductiveness reminiscent of the late ’80s, but actually pulls it off. With his first New York solo exhibition, Prudencio Irazabal presented the fruit of this unlikely synthesis, demonstrating that it is still possible to open up the seemingly narrow esthetics of monochrome painting.

Of course, the designation “monochrome” is usually a misnomer. Your typical monochrome painter will point to an all-green painting and proudly announce, “You know, there’s no green paint anywhere in that painting!” The rich color and depth of such work is often a product of canny mixings and layerings through which light zigzags before it emerges as a unified image. Something similar happens in Irazabal’s work—where there usually is green in a green painting—since each piece is made up of about a dozen layers of translucent acrylic (together comprising an almost inch-thick surface), all of which are visible as quasi-geographical strata at the clean-cut sides of the canvas.

As a result, each small-to-medium-sized square presents an image of a single overall color, but one that is never consistent across the entire surface. Instead, there are great variations in the tonal qualities of the paint, with the edges generally darker, and in many of the paintings subordinate hues emerge through the dominant one. This sense of color emanating through color can have a surprisingly emotional impact, especially (though inexplicably) when green emerges through red, as in Untitled #882 and Untitled #890 (both 1995). At the same time, there is a subtle structuring of the apparently nebulous color-image through an underlying grid structure, which seems to arise from an alternation of horizontally and vertically applied layers of paint. It is undoubtedly this aspect of the paintings that accounts for Irazabal’s claim that his works represent perspectival recession through systematically painterly means—implying, I think, that the light in these works, striking as it is, may be less important than the depth that light reveals.

As a result of all these variations on the basic format, there turns out to be considerable difference among Irazabal’s works. In particular, there is a notable gap between those paintings that emphasize very “pure” and intense effects, as in the blazing orange-red of Untitled #709, 1995, and those that are more turbid. This range is all the more surprising in work that cultivates a cool, even slick mien, which presents itself as pure artifice. Rarely have I seen acrylic paint so patently plastic in appearance—or plastic so patently seductive.

Barry Schwabsky