Why the pairing of Martin Mugar and Paul Pollaro’s paintings? The obvious difference binds them together as artists in the tradition of Western Painting: Mugar loves color and Pollaro value. Mugar’s color hints at an overall value and Pollaro’s values suggest colors. This focus puts their interest in light as revealed through color and value from the Greeks to its dissolution in Kelly, Richter and Ryman. These three linger at the endgame of a long tradition of optics and seeing as the ground of painting. One foot in the tradition and the other where? They still tempt you to look with remnants of the language of light but imply that there is nothing to see if not the space between and around the paintings or just the paint as paint, which is not pointing the viewer anywhere beyond the canvas. In the end Kelly just puts up a plywood board, the substrate and abandons the color, his last link to the tradition of seeing. Richter stays with the paint as paint and the human presence still allowed with nothing more than a perfunctory smear. Ryman’s limitation of value to barely perceived shifts lingers longest with paint as seeing.
Pollaro’s and Mugar’s art references paint’s physical reality on the canvas and puts them more in the company of these artists that bookend the history of painting than the abstract painters who precede them such as Mondrian and the Color Field Painters. Mondrian supplied the ground upon which was built a full century of abstract painting. It was an intellectual ground of proportions and harmonies organized into clear wholes constructed out of distinct parts, sharp edges. Ryman, Kelly, Richter, artists of their time, take apart this language by casting doubt on our belief in the illusion of painting itself. If Mondrian moves beyond painting as an illusion of the real then these artists deconstruct painting as the illusion of a metaphysical reality. Everything in the painting can only point to itself and the message is the self -effacement, the wiping away of paint that might vibrate with something beyond itself.
These three artists attract Pollaro and Mugar due to their relentless cutting of ground from under one’s feet. Maybe they see more clearly the grim nihilism embodied in the work of Ryman, Kelly and Richter than the artists themselves do. For the grad school ingénue these artists provide an easy way to produce market ready product but for Mugar and Pollaro they challenge any easy notion of visual meaning. They seem to relish the site of painting’s demise as a sort of challenge to their creative drive to resurrect painting. Both Pollaro and Mugar seem to ask: is this end of painting to be constantly reiterated? Is it the contemporary artist’s only role as spelled out in the academies and the galleries to constantly hammer nail after nail in the coffin of painting?
Their notion of a ground and support goes beyond the canvas or board supporting the paint and becomes a metaphysical ground hidden beneath the visual. It is a harshly altered notion of the visual on the canvas. For both these artists their inspiration for ground does not come from some lofty notion of a higher world but from the world they move around in. The surface of paint does not just refer to itself but is the crust where the hidden becomes visual, but almost simultaneously withdraws. It is a rather precarious zone where meaning no sooner gained is lost.
Pollaro’s notion of ground is mud, embodying a murky primordial earth, beneath the surface of visuality, from which the Buddhists knew the lotus drew its strength. Like some miner he leaves the sunlit surface of the earth to look in the sunless earth for veins of ore that glow of their own accord. His work seems to have its locus in sites of volcanic activity where earth is formed or consumed. The work is self -referential in that the object is the subject: it is made with tar that looks like mud. But the journey he follows as he manipulates the tar becomes a strange amalgam that speaks of certain special and sensual qualities: from limitlessness to the armor of a giant crocodile. To quote again the Buddhists: it is not the finger that is pointing at the moon that we should look at but the moon itself. But what is he really pointing at? Pointing at himself. Maybe not much more than the grim stoicism of the toiler of the land knee deep in the field unsure of the payback of his efforts.
Mugar has set sail on a sea whose flickering surface is the interface of the sunlit world and the swelling body of the ocean’s restless flux. This is not a world of people and things, of sunlit porches and verandas looking out on the world. Nor the distinct forms of abstract rationalism. The individual units of the painting are an impulse themselves as the flat units of Mondrian are questioned as a basis for painting. But what if all this repetition of marks no matter how well crafted hints only at a grim monotony that all the color cannot belie: the repetition of waves ad infinitum that reveal nothing or only serve to hide the truth.
Pollaro and Mugar wrest technical deconstruction from Ryman, Kelly and Richter to expand the vocabulary to let painting say something about the seen and the unseen. It is an unseen that is always present in the day to day, as close as one’s body that surprises us when we look out at our hand that reaches out to the world. Everything hovers between sense and non-sense, understandable as a clear summer day at sea but escaping clarity when swells suddenly manifest themselves as waves and engulf the sailor. The toiler in the earth despite a lifetime of assiduous toil knows that one day he will be part of that soil. There are no claims here to having accomplished some heroic meaning in the face of the void.
(link here to 2015 show essay with Mugar Pollaro et alia)
(link here to 2015 show essay with Mugar Pollaro et alia)