Los Angeles

David Korty

China Art Objects

If Pierre Bonnard employed color to domesticate modernist aesthetics, painter David Korty has used it to tame LA’s polluted skylines, lending a phosphorescent majesty to its poisonous sunsets, dusty twilights, and thick parfaits of smog. In a substantial shift, Korty’s recent show of paintings (all Untitled, 2004) at China Art Objects was considerably more austere than usual, dominated by ashen grays that suggested his subjects’ blanched, skeletal frames. His former trademark palette was characterized by acid shades of pomegranate, violet, and orange—colors that bleed. Gray, by contrast, can only run and pool, and the effect is one of subtlety and emotional restraint. The small touches of color Korty includes—apple green, royal purple, powdery pinks and blues—assert themselves via gestural strokes and squiggles. The surfaces of his canvases are heavily worked and covered with loopy geometric patterning in colored pencil, which recalls the Bay Area’s Dynaton movement of the early 1950s as well as Munch and van Gogh. The resultant texture is more fluid than fraught and delicate enough that a breath of wind might disturb it.

Korty works from photographs but declines to engage in the overworked discourse around the proliferation and anonymity of images. His source material feels vividly personal, as if his camera were the faintest of mediators and the images he captures had somehow burned themselves directly into his retina before being reimagined on the canvas. Korty does, however, allude to photography by way of certain painterly effects that evoke the medium’s tendencies toward intrusion and unreliability. A greenish-black tree, for example, fades and dissolves into granules like an overexposed print, while the coral pink silhouette of a cat resembles a colorized negative. Yet ultimately, the persistent materiality of paint holds photorealism at bay; these images appear forever on the verge of liquefying into curtains of controlled drips.

InanoutrightrefusalofKorty’sgift for color-drenched depth, a painting of a full parking lot features a flat black sky, its thinly applied paint recklessly scratched up to reveal an underlayer of white. Above the rows of cartoonish cars, the unmistakable shape of a KKK hood lurks among the abstracted buildings of a city skyline—a nod to Philip Guston, perhaps, but slightly out of place and weirdly ahistorical in this context. A painting of a hillside landscape reflects an almost dialectal relation between the lone figure therein and the profusion of nature that surrounds him: Either the bushes and blooms are diminishing the figure, or they are mere contingency, the manifestation of his own imagination. Above the hill, an oppressive sky of white acrylic troweled over midnight blue or black barely contains a burgeoning darkness. The figure is faceless, as Korty’s figures always seem to be. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for the artist, lost in a landscape of looking.

Korty’s paintings are consistently deft, delicate, and agreeable: qualities that were once considered grounds for critique in some of his stylistic influences—Bonnard, Vuillard, and Matisse. Those three have all since received their critical due, of course, and Korty makes it possible to imagine a future in which his solid, sustained aesthetic and technical virtuosity are once again granted the status of critical benchmarks. But even now, in an era when, as Thierry de Duve has observed, “bad painting” has made it impossible to call any painting bad, agile and trembling images like Korty’s are something of a modest triumph.

Rachel Kushner