New York

Richard Kalina

It’s hard to get past pleasure with Richard Kalina’s latest exhibition, the fifty-two-year-old artist’s first in nearly three years. His most recent paintings, made up of layers of material, possess a vibrant and wacky kind of beauty, like Miró or Matisse by way of Jefferson Airplane. Starting with an unprimed linen base, Kalina uses black-and-white copies of the early nineteenth-century botanical prints of Pierre-Joseph Redouté as an underlayer for the paintings. But he also uses the Redouté prints in cutouts that float on top, of the painting, adding depth and symbolism. These cutouts are in the shapes of calligraphic curves and everyday household objects (scissors, a toaster, a stem glass, a pipe). Finally, he takes the flower heads from the prints—a panicle of lilacs, a single peony, a sunflower—and collages them over the works, as if to assert a sort of nineteenth-century “flower power.” The result is visually complex, with the strange power of a vivid, sensual, narrativeless dream.

Color is Kalina’s strong suit. In these works, he composes a system of brightly colored vertical stripes out of clear, vibrant acrylic. In The Circle of Victor Hugo, 1998, the stripes come in fluorescent pink, puce, burgundy, denim, and grapish-purple. The artist makes these colors slightly opaque with a final coating of Flashe, a kind of glaze that creates a semitranslucent effect. If the color scheme sounds simple, it isn’t. The sophistication comes, in part, from the visibility of the Redouté prints beneath: their inky black coming through complicates the overlay of color. It’s like looking at licorice through the sheer, bright hues of a lollipop.

Not all the works in the exhibition feature vertical stripes—Symbolist Poets, 1997, employs a series of colored squiggles to introduce its color and add a unifying pattern—but the striped works are the most exciting because of the pleasing color harmonies. Even more delightful, if less sophisticated, are several smaller pieces in watercolor and ink, in which Kalina simplifies his work to a seemingly straightforward combination of watercolor stripes and squiggle-patterned lines reminiscent of Brice Marden. Kalina’s color choices here are superb (varying hues of magenta, orange, yellow, and pink), and their structure has the finesse of woven silk. Despite their brightness and ease, these works feature a fluency and complexity in their line drawing (some of which is done atop the watercolor, and some of which emerges from beneath) that establish, to the observant, the artist’s meticulous attention to his craft.

Justin Spring