New York

Charles Koegel, Who Knows, 2010, acrylic, oil, and spray-painted grass on canvas, 70 × 62".

Charles Koegel, Who Knows, 2010, acrylic, oil, and spray-painted grass on canvas, 70 × 62".

Charles Koegel

Charles Koegel, Who Knows, 2010, acrylic, oil, and spray-painted grass on canvas, 70 × 62".

The dozen abstract paintings by in this show tracked the development of the Brooklyn-based artist Charles Koegel’s work over the past eight years. Titled “Color Maps,” the exhibition began with thoroughly geometric pieces such as Best Kept Secret, 2008, and White Lotus, 2010, and concluded with the more visually complex Echoes, 2015, and Emulsion, 2016. These final works read as an extended homage to the history of abstraction: Josef Albers paid homage to the square, but, with Echoes, Koegel honors to a gestural matrix at a square’s center. Emulsion displays a variety of marks, each a different abstract “text” of sorts. If they are read from left to right, they provide an abbreviated history of abstract art, a shorthand summary of its visual ideas. Though some of Koegel’s paintings deploy a vocabulary of marks that today may feel cliché, his most intriguing works have enough idiosyncrasy—and absurdity—to offer something new.

As do many of Koegel’s paintings, In Bloom, 2010, features dead, dried grass, here festering amid vertical stripes of pale paint. The grass—spray-painted green by Koegel—seems to creep from left to right, as if on its way to overtaking the geometric construction, burying the neat geometry in a forgotten grave. Who Knows, 2010, similarly features grass growing from a scaffold of vertical stripes. The geometry here is vibrantly colored: a modish collection of blue and orange and green and yellow. (The repeated use of grass in Koegel’s work brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s famous panel of live grass mounted on chicken wire from 1953.)

The grass and the stripes—nature and culture—are in uneasy balance. Koegel seems stuck on the horns of a dilemma: Does he prefer living nature to lifeless art—organic form to inorganic geometry—or is it the other way round? Nature and art are in unresolved conflict, uncannily together however radically different. This divided sense is heightened in Here’s What’s Left, 2011: The quantity of green grass is reduced to a sliver, and the canvas is flooded with a blinding white, as though from an explosion in the sky. Little more than a sturdy geometrical construction remains, suggestive of the skeletal remains of a skyscraper. If Here’s What’s Left does indeed portray doomsday, Poppies and TV Antenna, 2012, by contrast, pictures the elysian pre-apocalyptic world: idealized golden blooms and a Victorian home—nature and culture in radiant harmony.

Perhaps the most aesthetically intriguing aspect of Koegel’s paintings is their crackled surfaces, which deceptively suggest they’re age-old—they’ve weathered the times. He produces the craquelure by layering enamel paint, a modern industrial material, over oil paint, a traditional natural medium. This collision of the natural and the industrial suggests yet another conflict between nature and culture, this time embedded in the work itself. The craquelure, moreover, implies that abstraction has seen better days.

Donald Kuspit