Los Angeles

Kevin Appel

Angles Gallery

What is “pictorial” space? Modernist criticism put the question near the top of its agenda but never provided a definitive answer, preferring instead to blur its theoretical parameters in a way that might enable a more integrated solution. As it stands, the term is somewhat paradoxical: On one hand, it refers to something flat, coextensive with painting’s literal surface. On the other, it signifies depth, though not in a traditional perspectival sense. Rather, “depth” here implies a plastic intelligence, and an ability to articulate flatness as such, and thereby to render it open and inhabitable.

This imperative has guided Kevin Appel’s output from the start, though he approaches it now in a manner that might be termed retrospective, even revisionist. His work features elements of architecture and “good design”—that is, precisely those disciplines that modern art cast as its Other. Moreover, the pictorial space of his paintings has always alluded to space “out there”: dwellings real or imagined, typically echoing the streamlined, open-plan configurations of Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra. Accordingly, from one show to the next, Appel’s aesthetic evolution has unfolded as a series of quasi-representational renovations and remodelings. A wall removed here, a ceiling raised there—formal decisions that, by recourse to an actual architectonics, gain immediate phenomenological implications.

But whereas the sense of being literally housed was figuratively invoked by Appel’s earlier works, this recent batch completely reverses the program, presenting spaces that are impossible anywhere but here on the canvas. If they have any material referent left, it is only to Appel’s collages, several of which were also included. These are made of interlocked cuttings of textured papers, suggestive of wood grain and masonry like the papiers collés so beloved by the Cubists, all seemingly held together by a series of slackly dangling, ropelike pencil lines. In the paintings, these textures reappear as painterly passages that occupy sharply delimited planes of varying thickness. Appel applies his patented approximation of bas-relief, but this effect is no longer tied to any outlying cause. He gives us architectonic structure but no longer a view. Instead, painterly surface is rendered as an interzone in which our sense of inside and outside becomes convulsively skewed.

Those branches that typically intrude on the frame of an architectural representation as a clichéd reminder of the “great outdoors” are elevated to a principal role in Appel’s work, twisting and turning their way through windows and doors, penetrating the interior in an almost obscene manner. Yet the highly romantic impression that nature is exacting revenge on the man-made is tempered by the primitive form of housing that Appel has chosen to depict. These are primal structures—simultaneously recalling a child’s drawing of home and the architecture of the American frontier, they are themselves still partly “of nature.” Their iconic, four-sided pitched roofs are evidently supported by the very same wood that elsewhere undermines structural soundness. Architecture, caught in this moment of simultaneous becoming and dissolution, is subject to the same forces of push and pull that have always defined the pictorial, but now in a way that bears directly upon our sense of being whole or fragmented, secure or vulnerable, civilized or barbaric.

Jan Tumlir