New York

Jennifer Kobylarz

Edward Thorp Gallery

In paintings that bring to mind Stuart Davis, Matisse cutouts, and ’50s bachelor-pad ambience, Jenifer Kobylarz takes a recurring motif (a sort of anthropomorphic fern) through a series of punning transformations, stretching, layering, or otherwise mutating the subject into a variety of images (spinal column, zipper, chainsaw, piano keys) that nevertheless manage to retain the fern’s segmented structure. Varying in composition from bold and heraldic to busy and allover, some of the pieces explore the interplay of figure and ground—for example, Red Spine, 1995, can be read as either a rib cage or a pair of exaggerated cock’s combs—while others create quasi-Cubist passages of intersecting shapes.

Kobylarz keeps her surfaces lean without being skimpy. The care with which she applies smooth layers of oil paint contributes to the peculiar sense of frozen motion in the paintings: her shapes exist in a kind of elegant stasis but simultaneously seem ready to burst out of the picture plane at any time. In Casting Lines, 1994, a conveyor belt of rubbery bow-tie forms winds back and forth, hemmed in by the four sides of the canvas. Like an urban queue suddenly forced to double in length, the ties do their best to mesh without crashing into one another. A seductive yellow-and-graphite color scheme turns the awkwardness of this scenario into rambunctious (but carefully controlled) visual energy.

In Two Easy Pieces, 1995, a double outline of rounded fronds goes wildly out of register, resulting in syncopated Venn diagrams of red, orange, yellow, and blue, and in Chock-a-Block, 1995, the fern motif all but disappears in a bundle of oscillating curves that pass in and out of each other, turning negative spaces into positive and back again. The latter is the most overtly musical of all the paintings, suggesting at once a performance of electronic instruments, the score for the performance, and the ’50s album cover containing the recording. Openly flirting with nostalgia, the work reminds us of a time when Modernist painting was seen as the art of the future rather than the past.

Kobylarz works within a known stylistic vocabulary in a matter-of-fact manner, sidestepping the endgame polemics of ’80s abstraction. By invoking graphic design inspired by high-Modernist motifs as readily as the motifs themselves, she acknowledges the absorption of these forms of abstraction into the commercial world without being overly judgmental about it. In asking about the present relevance of a visual language exemplified by artists such as Matisse and Davis, she ultimately approaches ’50s abstraction (both high and low) with the sensibility of a friendly caricaturist, in the process creating subtle expressions of what Leo Steinberg calls the “tensions and vectors” of contemporary life.

Tom Moody