Basel

Viktor Korol, Look On, 2012, oil stick, oil paint, permanent marker, and acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 63".

Viktor Korol, Look On, 2012, oil stick, oil paint, permanent marker, and acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 63".

Viktor Korol

Schwarzwaldallee

Viktor Korol, Look On, 2012, oil stick, oil paint, permanent marker, and acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 63".

Refusal and withdrawal are familiar themes in contemporary art; their traces and spectral shadows stretch everywhere, touching each medium. Beyond all the examples catalogued by Susan Sontag in her 1967 essay “The Aesthetics of Silence,” consider Lee Lozano’s infamous boycott projects (withdrawing from the New York art world, refusing to speak to women) or, more generally, the many artists and writers who have renounced honors on political grounds: Jean-Paul Sartre refusing the Nobel Prize in Literature, Asger Jorn refusing the Guggenheim International Award, Adrienne Rich refusing the National Medal of Arts. In Europe’s current young art scene, where participation and participatory practices are a trump card that may have once indicated counter-cultural political concerns but now connote the opposite—a golden ticket to art-market success—the act of refusal takes on added resonance. Which is just to say that when I found myself in late summer in the alternative space Schwarzwaldallee, which was empty but for one misshapen stretcher—its canvas untouched—I was not shocked, exactly, but the gesture still took me by surprise.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have. The Basel-based artist whose exhibition this was, Viktor Korol, is known for his enigmatic use of reduction, refusal, trace making, and withdrawal. Earlier this year, in the group show “Within the Horizon of the Object,” at Ausstellungsraum Klingental, also in Basel, Korol installed a potted tree and an ivy plant in a hanging pot. By rubbing their leaves against the surrounding white walls, creating a series of subtle green smears—traces of the leaves—he pointed to the idea of painting, without quite committing to it. In another recent group show, “Give Me Shelter,” at GGG Atelierhaus this past August and September, where Korol keeps a studio, the artist offered a kind of mural, which consisted of layers of spray-paint traces and colored marks left on his studio wall from the making of now-absent paintings. That the traces themselves were painterly in the extreme—and familiar gestures of a kind of reductionist painting now in vogue—nearly negated Korol’s act of negation, or refused his refusal, one could say. And therein lay the work’s interest.

Such tensions and ambiguities also coexisted in Schwarzwaldallee’s bare rooms, which likewise bore traces (spiderwebs, paint dust) of their recent, more hectic occupation. In the weeks before his show there, Korol moved his studio into the space, filling it with material and refuse, making a quantity of work and hanging it on the walls. As the day of his opening drew near, Korol began an analogous process of reduction, slowly emptying the rooms of his works, until only that one deformed canvas remained. And yet there was something else besides: a title, nearly material in the tangibility of its historical invocations. “To the People of New York City” was, of course, taken from Blinky Palermo’s famous last cycle of paintings, from 1976. Indeed, Palermo’s spare and urbane painting practice, with its sensitive formal vocabulary, finds a weird rhyme with Korol’s own reined-in improvisation. Palermo’s keen awareness of architecture, its haunting and often instructive lack, which our lives and objects are meant to fill and furnish, as well as his provisional-seeming works site-specifically installed in rooms like divestments of their meaning, finds resonance in Korol’s own alternating enchantment and disenchantment with his medium, and with the rooms in which he makes and installs his production—or not. Recalling Palermo’s interest in unconventional painting supports—and the finely felt, reduced signs they support—Korol’s employ of walls and empty, misshapen canvases does not indicate a neglect of painting but the opposite: a tender skepticism that is, in our art-careerist present, well-tuned and appreciated indeed.

Quinn Latimer